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NEW YORK — Just days after New York leaders ordered people to stay home, the authorities on Wednesday mobilized to head off a potential public health disaster, with the city’s emergence as the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spot a warning flare — and perhaps a cautionary tale — for the rest of the country.

A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police, their ranks dwindling as more fall ill, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing.

Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses, fearing that the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals the way the virus did in Italy and Spain.

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New York University offered to let its medical students graduate early so that they could join the battle.

Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 20,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the United States has topped 800, with more than 60,000 infections.

New York State alone accounted for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, most of them in New York City.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, again pleading for help in dealing with the onslaught, attributed the cluster to the city’s role as a gateway to international travelers and the sheer density of its population, with 8.6 million people sharing subways, elevators, apartment buildings, and offices.

“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” he said. ‘‘But it’s true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is.’’

Some public health experts also attributed the city’s burgeoning caseload, in part, to the state’s big push to test people for the virus.

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The order to stay at home in New York state did not go into effect until Sunday evening, and New York City’s approximately 1.1 million-student school system was not closed down until March 15, well after other school districts had shut down. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Four big banks suspend mortgage collections

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Governor Gavin Newsom said four of the nation’s largest banks have agreed to temporarily suspend mortgage payments for those affected by the coronavirus.

Wells Fargo, US Bank, Citi, and JP Morgan Chase have all agreed to waive mortgage payments for 90 days, Newsom said. Bank of America has agreed to a 30-day suspension, he said.

More than 1 million Californians have filed for unemployment benefits since March 13.

The news came after Congress reached a deal with the Trump administration on a stimulus package that will increase unemployment benefits by $600 per week on top of what the state provides. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Federal prisons pressured to thin inmate populations

WASHINGTON — Amid fears that the coronavirus will carve a deadly path through prisons and jails, counties and states are releasing thousands of inmates — New Jersey alone began freeing hundreds of people this week — and the federal prison system is coming under intense pressure to take similar measures.

Public health and corrections officials have issued dire warnings that cramped and unsanitary conditions could turn prisons into havens for the virus, endangering not just inmates but also corrections officers and prison health care workers as well as their families and communities.

Criminal-justice reform advocates from across the political spectrum have urged President Trump to use his clemency power to commute the sentences of inmates eligible for ‘‘compassionate release’’ and others who could be at risk, particularly the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

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Inside a county jail in Alabama on Friday, two inmates threatened to commit suicide if newly arrived Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees they feared had been exposed to the virus were not removed. According to video live-streamed on an inmate’s Facebook page, the two detainees stood on a ledge over a common area, nooses fashioned from sheets wrapped around their necks, and threatened to jump.

The three new detainees had described being brought to the facility in the same van as an individual who was visibly ill and wearing a mask, inmates said in interviews with The Post. An ICE spokesman, Bryan Cox, said none of the three had flu-like symptoms, but he did not know whether they had been tested for the virus.

The hourslong standoff ended when guards moved the new arrivals to a different unit of the jail, the Etowah County Detention Center in northern Alabama, inmates said. — WASHINGTON POST

Inflicting coronavirus may count as terrorism, Feds say

WASHINGTON — The US Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking official on Tuesday told federal law enforcement officials across the country that they should consider using terrorism laws to investigate and prosecute those who try to intentionally infect others with COVID-19.

The guidance came in a memo from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, addressing the many crimes that prosecutors might seek to explore during the global pandemic. Rosen wrote that among the wrongdoing officials might see is ‘‘the purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19.’’

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The guidance, thus far, appears to be theoretical. So far, the only coronavirus-related case the Justice Department has brought is a lawsuit against a website claiming to distribute coronavirus vaccines, which do not exist. State and local authorities, though, have used their own terrorism threat laws in coronavirus-related matters.

New Jersey’s attorney general’s office, for example, announced Tuesday that it had charged a Freehold man with making terroristic threats and other related crimes for allegedly coughing on an employee of a Wegmans grocery store and claiming he had the coronavirus. — WASHINGTON POST

Racist hackers infiltrate USC’s online classes

WASHINGTON — Saboteurs using ‘‘racist and vile language’’ infiltrated and disrupted online classes held by the University of Southern California, the school’s president disclosed Wednesday, the latest incident in a trend some have dubbed ‘‘Zoombombing.’’

Zoom is a popular video-conferencing tool that many colleges and universities are using to help finish their semesters through remote teaching, after the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to in-person classes.

USC, a private research university in Los Angeles, has about 47,000 students, including nearly 20,000 undergraduates.

Folt praised faculty and students for shifting gears to remote learning. —WASHINGTON POST