There Is An Outbreak At The White House. Could It Have Been Prevented?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump has returned to the White House. His doctors say he is improving and will continue his treatment outside the hospital. Meanwhile, more and more of the president's contacts are testing positive for COVID-19, and there's concern that number could grow in light of the public health measures the White House seems to have disregarded. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us now with more. Hey, Selena.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. So give us the list. Who has tested positive at this point?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, today we learned that press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive, and there are reports that her two deputies tested positive as well. There are now at least a dozen positive cases that seem to be connected to the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination event from just over a week ago. And there are photos at that event of people hugging, dozens of people sitting close together without masks. There were also indoor events, apparently, and this kind of gathering is listed by CDC as, quote, "highest-risk." If public guidelines were being followed here, it would have been smaller, outdoor-only. People would have stayed at least 6 feet apart and worn masks - very different from what actually happened.
CHANG: Right. And then on top of that, let's talk about the president's trip to New Jersey last Thursday. You know, the White House says the operation staff determined the president could still travel to a fundraiser and support a roundtable even though his close aide Hope Hicks had just tested positive. I mean, how much does that decision that the operation staff made - how much does that align with public health advice?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, as soon as Hicks' test results came in, Trump was a close contact of a known coronavirus case.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And following public health guidelines, he should have quarantined for up to 14 days. So instead, he went ahead with these events in Bedminster. I talked to Lindsay Wiley about this. She is a health law professor at American University.
LINDSAY WILEY: To literally go to a gathering indoors without masks shortly after learning that he had been exposed was a pretty serious violation of recommendations.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: At least, she says, the president should have gotten a test and delayed the event until he got the results back. Instead, the president got tested when he returned. And, of course, he was positive.
CHANG: Right. But just to push back a little, Selena, I mean, the president's staff members say that they were weighing the public health risks and making what they thought were the best decisions at the time. I mean, could there have been room for disagreement?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, of course, these decisions don't just affect the president. They affect anyone who he's been close to, including, for instance, the campaign donors in New Jersey, the Secret Service staff who took the car ride with Trump yesterday? And. When people in power ignore public health recommendations, Wiley says it has a big impact.
WILEY: It just sends such a strong signal to the general public that these recommendations aren't important to pay attention to and aren't necessary to follow.
CHANG: So what is known about the White House outbreak at this point? Like, where exactly did it start? Are contacts being notified systematically at this point?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's not clear where this started. And with a situation like this where people who live in lots of different places came together and potentially got infected, it's really CDC's job to coordinate the contact tracing process across jurisdictions, Wiley says. So, for instance, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tested positive for COVID, presumably in his home state of New Jersey. And New Jersey contact tracers can trace state residents who are his contacts, but Christie was with Trump in D.C. and Virginia last week. His local health department would have to reach out to local health departments of his contacts around the country - kind of inefficient.
So the fix for this is CDC. But CDC confirmed to NPR that it is not currently helping the White House contact trace the events of the past week although a CDC epidemiologist is detailed to the White House. And we may never know the true extent of this outbreak if that time-sensitive contact tracing work is not happening now.
CHANG: That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks, Ailsa.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.