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Trump clarifies that coronavirus task force will 'continue on indefinitely'

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the White House coronavirus task force would continue its work on the pandemic, focusing on vaccines and therapeutics, a day after appearing to give support to the possibility it would wind down its operations.

Trump asks Americans to be 'warriors' during pandemic, Pelosi accuses him of having no plan

President Donald Trump speaks during an event to sign a proclamation in honor of World Nurses Day in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday his coronavirus task force would shift its focus to reviving business and social life, prompting the top Democrat in Congress to warn that ignoring science and the need for more testing would put Americans at risk.

"Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics," Trump said in a series of tweets.

The task force to date has included medical professionals focused on battling the pandemic, some of whom have at times offered guidance at odds with Trump's, including on when to ease stay-at-home orders and lockdowns on the economy.

White House guidelines say that the number of new cases must be trending downward for 14 days and that vastly expanded coronavirus testing and other safeguards must be put in place before the shutdowns can be phased out.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she did not believe Trump should pivot to reopening at the expense of emphasizing the need for more testing.

"If you undermine science, if you underfund testing, if you exaggerate the opportunity that is out there for the economy at the risk of people dying, that's not a plan," Pelosi told MSNBC.

Dr. Deborah Birx, right, coronavirus task force co-ordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will continue to advise the administration, Trump said Monday. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and most high-profile member of the task force, acknowledged in a CNN interview that he was losing the argument against reopening the country too quickly.

"There are counties and cities in which you can do that safely now, but there are others that if you do that, it's really dangerous," he said on Tuesday night.

Trump told reporters he would announce new members of his task force by Monday.

Task force is 'popular,' Trump admits

On Tuesday, Vice-President Mike Pence, who leads the task force, told reporters the White House may start moving co-ordination of the U.S. response on to federal agencies in late May.

When asked later that day why he was considering winding down the task force, Trump replied: "Because we can't keep our country closed for the next five years."

But Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday he "had no idea how popular the task force is."

Trump said Tuesday Fauci and Deborah Birx, response co-ordinator for the task force, would continue to advise the White House going forward.

Trump acknowledged there might be a resurgence of the virus as states loosen the restrictions on businesses and social life that were aimed at curbing its spread.

But, he said Tuesday, "the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. We have to open."

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A number of U.S. states saw a record increase in cases on Tuesday, including Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin. Minnesota has set a new record for cases nine out of the last 14 days, including 728 new cases on Wednesday.

More than 71,500 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and more than 1.2 million people have tested positive, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

The Republican Trump administration and many state governors have emphasized the political and social pressures they face getting the U.S. economy going again.

ADP National Employment Report data on Wednesday showed that U.S. private employers laid off a record 20.236 million workers in April, suggesting the lockdowns could leave lasting scars on the economy.

But polls have consistently shown that a significant majority of Americans support their applicable stay-at-home orders, with governors more frequently drawing higher approval ratings than Trump in terms of pandemic response.

A flower vendor sells sunflowers to a customer on the first day of the reopening of Los Angeles Flower Market on Wednesday. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

It is also not clear how much activity businesses which can reopen will receive in the coming weeks.

State governors who have started lifting restrictions have said business reopenings will be gradual and that people should continue to observe social distancing and other guidelines, with capacity caps on businesses as low as 25 per cent in some jurisdictions.

Racing to develop vaccine

The University of Washington's influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation on Monday doubled its previous forecast for COVID-19 deaths in the United States, saying it now predicts the number could reach about 135,000 by early August as restrictions are relaxed.

Birx said the team would "keep a close eye on the data." She said the group was looking at outbreaks in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, as points of concern.

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Pence's office announced he would visit Des Moines on Friday to discuss reopening with faith leaders and meet with agricultural and food supply stakeholders.

The focus is now on therapeutics, vaccines and addressing infection hot spots, the task force members said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn said the Trump administration was committed to accelerating the search for a vaccine, with the goal of producing 100 million doses by the autumn and 300 million doses by the end of the year.

"Whether that can be achieved or not, it is realistic," said Azar. "We would not be doing this if we did not think it were realistic. Is it guaranteed? Of course it is not."

Most experts have suggested clinical trials to guarantee a vaccine is safe and effective could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months.

With files from CBC News

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