California into lockdown, US toll hits 200

Dan Whitcomb and David Shepardson
Americans are urged to return to the US or prepare to remain abroad for a "indefinite period"

California has issued a statewide 'stay at home" order for its 40 million residents and Washington is warning Americans to return home or stay abroad indefinitely, with the number of coronavirus deaths in the country hitting 200.

Governor Gavin Newsom said modelling has shown that 56 per cent of California residents were expected to contract COVID-19 over the next eight weeks, requiring nearly 20,000 more hospital beds than the state could provide.

He said Los Angeles, as the nation's second-largest city, would likely be "disproportionately impacted" by the pandemic in the coming weeks.

As authorities ramped up measures to keep the virus from spreading, Washington could announce restrictions on travel across the US-Mexico border as soon as Friday, limiting crossings to essential travel, two officials briefed on the matter said. That would follow a similar measure on Wednesday closing the border with Canada.

The fast-spreading respiratory illness has shattered most patterns of American life: shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and sharply curtailing travel.

The US State Department told citizens that if they travel internationally, "your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite time frame".

With the economy swooning, Senate Republicans unveiled a $US1 trillion ($A1.7 trillion) economic stimulus plan to provide funds directly to businesses and the American public. President Donald Trump has been eagerly calling for that package.

It would be Congress's third emergency coronavirus bill following a $US105 billion-plus plan covering free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, and an $US8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the highly contagious pathogen and develop vaccines.

The plunging stock market and surging US death toll has caused Trump to sharply change his tone on the disease this week, demanding urgent action after spending weeks downplaying the risks.

More than 13,000 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the illness called COVID-19 and 200 have died, with the largest numbers so far in Washington state and New York.

Minutes before Newsom announced his statewide order, Los Angeles County officials ordered the closure of all shopping centres and non-essential businesses, and told its 10 million residents to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

"We cannot wait. We have to act now," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. "This is not a shelter-in-place order, this is a stay-at-home order."

Two Los Angeles Lakers players have the coronavirus, the NBA franchise said on Thursday after four players from the Brooklyn Nets tested positive for the disease a day earlier.

The virus has taken the greatest toll in Washington state, which reported eight more deaths on Thursday, bringing the death toll there to 74.

With the United States slow to roll out mass testing for the virus that has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, officials fear the number of known cases of the respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia lags far behind reality.

New York State tested 8000 patients overnight. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered three-quarters of state employees to work from home but has resisted calls for the kind of 'stay at home' order that California has now mandated.

There are no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19 but several options are being tested.

The epidemic, which has killed over 10,000 globally, has drawn comparisons with traumatic periods such as World War II, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged by the most since 2012 to a 2-1/2-year high last week as companies in the services sector laid off workers with businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.