(Adds Trump quote)
By Stephanie Kelly and Maria Caspani
NEW YORK, March 24 (Reuters) - The worst of the coronavirus outbreak will hit New York state faster and harder than previously thought, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday as the World Health Organization said the United States could emerge as the epicenter of the global pandemic.
As President Donald Trump pressed his case for a reopening of the U.S. economy within a few weeks, Cuomo said that being too hasty to ease the limits on travel, socializing and working together would cost lives.
"If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it's no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life," he said at a convention center in Manhattan that is being converted into a 1,000-bed temporary hospital.
Cuomo's state, home to the most populous U.S. city, is the worst hit by the outbreak, which has infected more than 50,000 people in the United States and killed at least 660. The death toll in New York from the COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by coronavirus has reached 157.
The expected need for hospital beds in New York at the peak of the outbreak has jumped to 140,000, Cuomo said, compared with 110,000 projected recently. Only 53,000 beds are now available.
The rate of infection is now doubling every three days in New York and the worst of the outbreak, known as the apex, could arrive in 14 to 21 days, putting huge pressure on health services, Cuomo said.
A week after New Yorkers and millions of other Americans began taking shelter at home from the coronavirus, state officials and financial investors warned on Tuesday against easing restrictions too soon even though the clampdown is devastating the U.S. economy.
Trump said on Monday he was considering how to restart business life when a 15-day shutdown ends next week, even as the highly contagious virus spreads rapidly and poorly equipped hospitals struggle with a wave of deadly cases.
The Republican president is seeking to win re-election in November on a promise of economic growth.
Trump told Fox News Channel that he would like to see U.S. businesses opening their doors by Easter, to be celebrated this year in mid-April.
"I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," he said, playing down the pandemic as he did in its early stages when he compared it to the seasonal flu. Trump said the restrictions could themselves lead to suicides or other fatalities but cited no evidence to support the assertion.
"You're going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression. You're going to lose people. You're going to have suicides by the thousands," he said.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, also a Republican, pushed back on the notion that an easing of restrictions should start anytime soon.
"We don't think that we're going to be in any way ready to be out of this in five or six days or so, or whenever this 15 days is up from the time that they started this imaginary clock," he told CNN on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned that the United States has the potential to become the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, citing a "very large acceleration" in infections.
There were signs that nerves had begun fraying after days of people working from home, looking after children whose schools are shut and severely scaling back on everyday activities.
At a Brooklyn playground, architect Carolyn Straub, 48, and her family took a break from their new lives working and schooling from home.
"That's actually been hard," Straub said. "The internet is not always reliable, goes down, and it's impossible for us to have four separate audio zones in the house."
A rapid reopening of the economy might backfire, with higher deaths and people remaining fearful of going out, according to investors who remain anxious about the uncertain trajectory of the coronavirus and its economic toll.
"Markets will react badly because they have learned that this approach doesn't work," Axel Merk, chief investment officer of Merk Investments, said. "From a medical point of view, you have to break the exponential growth and you do that with shelter in place policies."
Wall Street snapped back from three-year lows on Tuesday, and the Dow Jones index surged over 8%, after U.S. lawmakers said they were close to a deal for an economic rescue package. All three main U.S. stock indexes rebounded strongly from a brutal selloff on Monday.
Negotiators in the U.S. Senate said the upper chamber of Congress could pass the $2 trillion stimulus bill, which includes financial aid for ordinary Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, as soon as Tuesday. Senior Democrats and Republicans in Congress said they were close to a deal on the bill.
Despite the huge changes to daily life, many Americans still say they are willing to make sacrifices.
Holly Huelster, 33, a full-time nanny who was pushing the toddler she cares for in a stroller down 11th Avenue in New York City, said she believes Trump's rhetoric about the economy threatens real harm to human lives.
"It's horrible for the economy but I would put health as a priority always," she said. "I think it's not that hard to live on less, I think you can make it work."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Maria Caspani, Megan Davies and Gabriella Borter in New York and Ross Kerber in Boston; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.