New York reports 779 more deaths, governor says social distancing working

By Nathan Layne and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) - New York's efforts at social distancing are working to get the coronavirus outbreak under control even as the state reported an additional 779 deaths, a record high for a second day, the Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday.

Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading national voice on the outbreak, said he never thought he would ever again experience a disaster on the scale of the September 11, 2001 ,attacks and called the mounting death toll "almost unimaginable to me."

The governor acknowledged that it was a "very real possibility" that deaths in New York were being undercounted as people died in their homes, and called for continued adherence to business closures and other social distancing steps.

Cuomo ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff across New York, where 6,268 people have now died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, accounting for nearly half the deaths in the United States.

"Don't start doing a retrospective like it's over," Cuomo told a daily briefing. "We are not through it. It's not over."

Cuomo pointed to the fall in new hospitalizations on Tuesday to 586 on Tuesday, down from 656 a day earlier, and other data points as evidence that New York was "bending the curve" and gaining some control over the rate of infections.

But he warned that the death count would continue at the current level, if not climb higher, over the next several days as those hospitalized more than a week ago and put on a ventilator machine passed away.

He also warned that any relaxing of social distancing steps - on Tuesday he extended the state's closure of non-essential businesses and schools until the end of April - risked reversing the gains.

"This is just a small snapshot in time where we are," Cuomo said. "You have four or five days of flattening. You could have tomorrow morning we wake up and the number is back up."

Cuomo called for research into why people from minority communities were dying at disproportionate rates, a phenomenon that has become increasingly clear over the past few days as more states disclosed the racial makeup of the deceased.

(reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Maria Caspani in New York and Stephanie Kelly in Maplewood, New Jersey, Editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis)