(Adds de Blasio, other quotes)
By Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, April 9 (Reuters) - The top U.S. infectious disease expert on Thursday warned against reopening the economy too soon in the face of improving data on the coronavirus outbreak but a third week of massive jobless claims underscored the huge economic cost to social distancing measures aimed at curbing the virus' spread.
Several officials have hailed the apparent success of mitigation efforts shown in death projections that have been scaled down to 60,000 from more than 100,000, but Dr. Anthony Fauci said it was important that people continue to stay home.
"We've got to continue to redouble our efforts at the mitigation of physical separation in order to keep those numbers down and hopefully even get them lower than what you've heard recently," Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CBS "This Morning."
Stay-at-home orders that have closed non-essential workplaces in 42 states have drastically slowed the once-humming U.S. economy and thrown millions of people out of work.
With several state unemployment insurance offices deluged in recent weeks, 6.6 million workers applied for jobless benefits in the week ended April 4, the U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday. That followed 6.9 million jobless applications the week before, the most since the Great Recession of 2008.
In all, some 16.8 million American workers have applied for jobless benefits in the past three weeks.
Fauci, appearing on several morning television programs, affirmed that recent models showing fewer deaths than previously projected were evidence that social distancing and other efforts at keeping people apart were slowing the spread of the virus.
"So I believe we're going to see a downturn in that, and it looks more like the 60,000 than the 100,000-200,000," Fauci said on the NBC "Today" program.
A University of Washington model often cited by U.S. and state officials projects that COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by coronavirus, will claim 60,415 American lives by Aug. 4, with the peak coming on Easter Sunday this weekend, when it projects that 2,212 will die.
By Thursday morning, more than 432,000 U.S. residents had tested positive for the virus, and around 14,800 had died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
New York state, epicenter of America's coronavirus crisis, set another single-day record of COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday. Veteran doctors and nurses voiced astonishment at the speed with which patients were deteriorating and dying.
Patients "look fine, feel fine, then you turn around and they're unresponsive," said Diana Torres, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the center of the nation's worst outbreak.
The number of known coronavirus infections in New York state alone approached 150,000 on Thursday, including nearly 6,300 deaths, even as authorities warned that the official death tally may understate the true number because it does not include those who died at home.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cautioned on Thursday that while the situation may not be as bad as originally feared, widespread transmission of the virus persisted in the city which will be hit for many weeks to come.
"I think it's going to be a long tough April, I've said for a long time, get ready for a long tough May," de Blasio said.
Officials have warned Americans to expect alarming numbers of coronavirus deaths this week, consistent with projections.
"We are in the midst of a week of heartache," Vice President Mike Pence said during a White House briefing on Wednesday, but added, "we are beginning to see glimmers of hope."
At the same briefing, President Donald Trump said he would like to reopen the U.S. economy with a "big bang" but not before the death toll is headed downward.
Small businesses and workers, particularly in the service industries, were bearing the brunt of the lockdown measures.
Outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, 22-year-old Jocelyn Ockerse, recently lost her job as a hairdresser while her husband, a drivers' education instructor, also is out of work. Neither has been approved for unemployment benefiTs.
"We are struggling mentally and financially but if further restrictions slow this thing down and help save lives, then I'm all for it," Ockerse told Reuters through Twitter messages.
Keith Howard, 60, said he has been relying on the local food bank and waiting for his unemployment benefits to arrive since he was laid off last month from his job as a cleaner at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"The only thing I can do is go about it one day at a time," Howard told Reuters by phone. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Maria Caspani, Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Nathan Layne, Stephanie Kelly and Peter Szekely; Writing by Peter Szekely and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Alistair Bell)
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