Not only have the president, first lady, several sitting members of Congress and White House staff tested positive in the last several days, but local leaders and even governors have had to weigh recommendations to isolate after their exposure to White House officials.
With every hour, the tangled web of people across the country who were possibly exposed to COVID-19 because of contact with someone in Trump’s orbit is growing exponentially. And with the president returning to the White House at this stage, while he is still possibly contagious, it could continue to expand as well.
In the days that followed, the president and his team: held events at the White House full of the usual pomp and circumstance — including a performance by the Marine Corps Band; traveled to Ohio for the presidential debate; threw a mega-rally that broke safety protocols in Minnesota; attended a fundraiser in New Jersey; and continued with White House operations.
“Obviously we’re concerned about the spread of COVID-19, period, we’re concerned with people following scientifically justified protocols to contain the spread of the virus,” Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday. “That’s for D.C. residents, that’s for D.C. workers and that’s also for people on federal properties, including the White House.”
As of Monday afternoon, ABC News confirmed that 17 people related to the White House have tested positive.
The fact is, all presidents live and travel with dozens of personnel, including Secret Service agents, White House residence staff and more. But Trump’s brazen and cavalier behavior comes at a time when millions of Americans are still adhering to strict local rules about social distancing because of the pandemic. Dozens of states still impose restrictions on large gatherings — from postponed weddings and funerals to communions and reunions — Americans have, by and large, been living still in this world consumed and restricted by COVID-19 risks. The president and his team have not.
Commercial airlines have suffered incredible financial losses with passenger travel down and continue to seek billions of dollars in additional aid from the federal government. Average Americans cannot fly without a mask, and yet as late as Thursday evening, after senior counselor to the president Hope Hicks had tested positive for COVID-19, the Trump team still boarded Air Force One, largely without masks. The move potentially put crew members, journalists and invited guests all at risk.
Part of the current uproar in Washington is the result of a lack of clear and honest information from the White House. Repeatedly, the public has only learned of new cases among White House and political staff from the press. Only on a few occasions has the White House been forthright and upfront with new updates.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday via Twitter that she too had tested positive for the virus. McEnany was one of four aides pulled from a trip last Thursday after her exposure to Hicks. Still, McEnany did not strictly quarantine in the days that followed. She said she had tested negative that day. On Friday and Sunday, she spoke with reporters and conducted the interviews without wearing a mask.
ABC News learned the president himself was less than transparent about his own health. Speaking to Fox News Thursday night he said he had been tested and was awaiting results, but neglected to disclose that he had already once received a positive test and was actually waiting for a second test result.
“I have serious concerns that in any automobile, masks or not masks, there’s a very high risk of transmission,” said Dr. James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital and a non-military attending physician at Walter Reed, on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Monday.
“As a physician, we look at the decisions we make as risks versus benefits. I don’t know what the benefits of this political stunt were, but I do know what the risks were. And my concern is perhaps the Secret Service agents that were inside, don’t know the risks they were up against there. As far as the military and Johns Hopkins physicians taking care of the president, they’re excellent. They’re under undue pressure outside of that relationship,” he added.
There will continue to be accusations and suspicion about who knew what when — and the related timeline of the decisions about when to cancel or not cancel campaign events. That debate aside, the head-spinning developments these last few days serve as a poignant example of why public health officials have recommended other precautions, such as social distancing and masks, in addition to testing.
Testing can identify a problem, but stopping an outbreak with the potential for exponential growth requires preventative measures.