New York broke its record for the largest single-day coronavirus death toll for the third consecutive day, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday, as he warned the effect of the outbreak on the state’s economy is expected to be more devastating than 9/11.

The grim milestone came as New York City officials hired contract laborers to bury the rising number of dead in its potter’s field on Hart Island, an area which has for decades been used to bury those with no known next of kin.

New York recorded 799 deaths from coronavirus on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total death toll to 7,067. New York has lost about the same number of people to coronavirus as the UK.

As the state mourns the loss, there are also signs that social distancing is flattening the curve. Yesterday, the state recorded the lowest number of new hospitalizations since the crisis started. The number of ICU admissions and intubations are also down.

“We are saving lives by what we are doing today,” Cuomo said, expressing cautious optimism about signs that the state is flattening the curve of coronavirus cases.

However, the governor warned that the state’s progress could be undone if social distancing practices were relaxed too quickly.

“Remember, the 1918 Spanish flu came in three waves,” Cuomo said. “We’re on the first wave. Everybody is assuming, well, once we get through this, we’re done. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that. This virus has been ahead of us from day one.”

Cuomo, speaking in his daily briefing, added that the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on the New York economy were expected to be “more devastating” than the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks “by far”.

New York state is bracing for a hit to its revenues of between $10bn and $15bn, with New York City – typically the city that never sleeps – essentially functioning as a ghost town: eerily still with non-essential businesses closed and residents sheltering at home.

The pandemic has brought the American economy to a standstill, with more than 6.6 million having lost their jobs last week.

Mass burials on Bronx island

The city has since the 19th century used Hart Island to bury New Yorkers with no known next of kin or whose family are unable to arrange a funeral.

Typically, 25 bodies are interred each week by low-paid jail inmates working on the island, which sits off the east shore of the city’s Bronx borough and is accessible only by boat.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island in the Bronx on Thursday. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

That number began increasing in March as the new coronavirus spread rapidly, making New York the focus of the pandemic. They are now burying about two dozen bodies a day, five days a week, said Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the department of correction, which oversees the burials.

For burial on the island, the dead are wrapped in body bags and placed inside pine caskets. The deceased’s name is written in large letters on each casket, which helps should any body need to be disinterred later, and they are buried in long narrow trenches excavated by digging machines.

“They added two new trenches in case we need them,” Kersten said. To help with the surge, and amid an outbreak of the Covid-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus at the city’s main jail, contract laborers have been hired, he said.

“For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic,” Kersten said.

A barge could be seen arriving at the island on Thursday morning with a refrigerated truck aboard containing about two dozen bodies.

The department referred questions about causes of death to the city’s office of the chief medical examiner (OCME). Aja Worthy-Davis, an OCME spokeswoman, said it would take time to collate individual causes of death from the office’s records, but that it was probable some of the recent burials include those felled by the coronavirus.

The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city’s morgue capacity, a point that has not yet been reached, Kersten and Worthy-Davis said.

“We’re all hoping it’s not coming to this,” Kersten said. “At the same time, we’re prepared if it does.”

The OCME can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings, and also has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks it can dispatch around the city to hospitals that typically have only small morgues, Worthy-Davis said.

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