By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday he faced his biggest decision yet with regard to when to re-open the U.S. economy from its coronavirus shutdown and pledged to listen to health experts when making that determination.
Speaking at a White House coronavirus briefing, Trump said he would unveil a new advisory group next week that would focus on the process of economic opening.
The president, who faced criticism for playing down the threat from the virus in its early stages, has chafed at the devastating economic impact of the strict social distancing measures his administration has recommended. The guidelines are set to stay in place through the end of April.
The president will then have to decide whether to extend them or start encouraging people to go back to work and a more normal way of life.
"I'm going to have to make a decision, and I ... hope to God that it's the right decision," Trump said. "It's the biggest decision I've ever had to make."
Trump said the facts would determine the next move, though he reiterated his desire to re-open the economy. Asked what metrics he would use to make his judgment, he pointed at his forehead: "The metrics right here, that's my metrics."
Trump suggested the number of new infections was flattening and the death toll would be lower than initial projections of more than 100,000.
He said he would announce the members of the new advisory council possibly on Tuesday. Some state governors will be appointed.
Trump said the aggressive social distancing and stay-at-home measures taken to combat the coronavirus were showing signs of success, and situations in hot spots such as New Orleans, Louisiana, and Detroit, Michigan, were stabilizing.
U.S. deaths from the virus topped 18,100 on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.
But administration officials cautioned it was still too early to ease restrictions, and said the faithful should not gather in churches on the Easter Sunday holiday.
"We know it's difficult in this time of year in particular to avoid gatherings of more than 10, but we're grateful that so many churches, synagogues and places of worship have done just that," Vice President Mike Pence said, urging worshipers "to continue to heed the guidelines."
New U.S. government figures show coronavirus infections will spike during the summer if stay-at-home orders are lifted after 30 days as planned, according to projections first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Department of Homeland Security official.
If shelter-in-place orders are lifted after 30 days, the death toll is estimated to reach 200,000, according to the projections, obtained from DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump said at the briefing that he and his advisers have not seen the new projections.
Trump said he was getting fewer calls from governors urgently seeking equipment and help.
"We're in great shape with ventilators, we're in great shape with protective clothing, we have additional planeloads coming in. But we're not getting any calls from governors at this moment," he said.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House task force on the coronavirus, said the United States was starting to flatten the curve the way Italy did, with a lot of the success coming from progress in New York City.
Officials have pointed to declining rates of coronavirus hospitalizations and need for intensive care in hard-hit New York as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
"But as encouraging as they are, we have not reached the peak. And so every day we need to continue to do what we did yesterday, and the week before and the week before that because that's what in the end is going to take us across the peak and down the other side," Birx said.
(additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Tim Ahmann and Doina Chiacu; Writing by John Whitesides and Jeff Mason; Editing by Sandra Maler, Chizu Nomiyama and Daniel Wallis)