Coronavirus live updates: Authorities fight against Easter gatherings, White House task force to focus on ‘opening’ country

A week after President Donald Trump warned of a "very deadly period" ahead for America, U.S. coronavirus deaths topped 18,777 Saturday morning, as experts signaled the country was at or near its peak for virus deaths.

More than 2,000 people in the US died of coronavirus on Friday, a new daily high in the nation's fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday the U.S. has not "reached the peak" of the pandemic but there were "encouraging" signs. That assessment came as a leading projection said U.S. deaths from the virus at would peak Friday.

In an effort to keep the virus from spreading further, some local authorities are taking extra measures to prevent large Easter celebrations.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced that any individual who goes to a mass gathering may have their license plates recorded, allowing local health departments to deliver orders of self-quarantine. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California denied a San Diego church's request to hold an Easter service, even with social distancing measures including possibly requiring members to wear hazmat suits.

Trump had previously set what he later described as an "aspirational" goal to reopen the country by Sunday, but has since abandoned that position.

"Though we will not be able to gather together with one another as we normally would on Easter ... I ask all Americans to pray that god will heal our nation," Trump said in an Easter message.

The U.S. surpassed 501,000 confirmed cases on Saturday, according to the Johns Hopkins University data dashboard. More than 29,000 Americans have recovered.

Our live blog is being updated throughout the day. Refresh for the latest news, and get updates in your inbox with The Daily Briefing. More headlines:

Your guide for COVID-19: What you need to know about safety, health and travel.How ventilators work: Why COVID-19 patients need them to survive Damage may already be happening: Trump's support of hydroxychloroquine could slow the race for a virus cureHelp while you're stuck at home: How to make Easter special. Also, how to get alcohol delivered.When are stimulus checks coming?Money set to roll out to Americans next weekLeaders, be honest about what you know — and don't know. Transparency builds trust. Read The Backstory from USA TODAY editor Nicole Carroll.

Trump announces second task force to focus on 'opening our country'

President Donald Trump said Friday he is creating a second task force to focus solely on how to "reopen" the country.

The president, whose senior aides have sent conflicting signals about whether or how federal guidelines should be changed when they expire at the end of April, said the second task force would be made up of "very great doctors" as well as business people and potentially members of Congress and state governors.

"This is beyond economic," Trump said at the White House on Friday as he explained the group's focus. "I call it the 'opening our country task force' or 'opening our country council,' so we don't get it confused with" the primary White House task force.

Trump has acknowledged an eagerness to ease social distancing guidelines that has at times run counter to the advice of public health officials. The makeup of the second group, which Trump said he would announce Tuesday, could signal which direction he is heading.

– John Fritze

More stores closing for Easter

More retailers will be closed for Easter than in past years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to the long list of companies that have temporarily shuttered stores due to COVID-19, some grocery stores that have traditionally kept their doors open on the holiday will be closed to give employees a day off.

Many stores also have reduced hours to give staff time to restock shelves and clean in addition to special hours for seniors and those most vulnerable to the virus.

Trader Joe's, Sprouts Farmers Market, BJ's Wholesale Club and Southeastern Grocers (BI-LO, Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie) are among the retailers who have announced they will be closed April 12, a change from last year. Not all companies have announced 2020 plans.

– Kelly Tyko

Hotspots brace for deaths with refrigerated trucks

Medical examiners and funeral homes across the U.S. are scrambling to secure temperature-controlled trailers in anticipation of overwhelmed facilities.

The use of refrigerated trailers, known as reefers, is a common contingency plan in the event of natural disasters or mass fatality events like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. But rarely, if ever, have they been deployed on such a massive scale to so many places at once — and in such a public way.

Images of people in protective suits loading bodies into trucks have appeared in numerous media outlets in the past few weeks. And they have prompted questions about respect for the dead and — when the makeshift morgues are no longer needed — what happens to the trailers.

Typically, the bodies of those who die in hospitals go straight to funeral homes, where they are prepared for memorial services. But as COVID-19 deaths mount and hospital morgues fill up, medical examiners are seeking additional capacity.

– Suzanne Hirt and Jessica Priest

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Antibody tests crucial to determining who can safely go back to work

As officials discuss when to lift stay-at-home orders, companies are rushing to develop coronavirus antibody tests that could help them make those decisions without risking a second wave of infections.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Friday on CNN that antibody testing can show who has developed immunity to the coronavirus and can safely go back to work without getting reinfected.

“It's very important to appreciate and understand how much this virus is penetrating this society,” he said.

On the "Today" show, Fauci said a large number of antibody tests should be available in a matter of days or weeks, according to the companies developing them.

The test can tell if someone was previously infected and recovered, while the molecular test shows whether tat person was infected with the virus at the time the test was taken.

The two tests can determine if a person is immune and can transmit the disease, which is crucial in deciding who can go back to work.

If a person has antibodies in his blood, that means he has immune cells available to fight the virus, which lowers the risk of re-infection. Widespread testing can determine how many people carry the antibodies, which has an impact on whether to life social distancing restrictions.

– Adrianna Rodriguez

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