Reporters wear masks at the White House. Staffers will soon join them. Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
“It is scary to go to work,” President Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett admitted on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. After weeks of avoiding an outbreak as staffers continued to come to work in the cramped offices of the West Wing and rarely wore masks, the coronavirus has finally arrived in the White House.
Late last week, two staffers tested positive for the virus, and three leaders of the government’s COVID-19 response team then placed themselves in quarantine. The coronavirus’s arrival at the threshold of the Oval Office has led to a renewed effort to bring masks, temperature checks, and teleconferencing to the West Wing. But not all White House officials are responding with extreme caution. Here’s what we know about the coronavirus outbreak at the White House and whom it has affected:
Who has tested positive?
So far, two known White House staffers have tested positive. The first is a member of the U.S. military who serves as one of President Trump’s personal valets, which means he brings the president meals and helps him pick out each day’s ill-fitting suit. It’s not clear how much contact the valet regularly had with the president, but Trump was reportedly “lava-level mad” after the valet’s positive tests, suggesting they weren’t strangers.
Katie Miller is the other White House staffer to test positive for the coronavirus. Miller is Vice-President Mike Pence’s spokesperson and Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s wife. She tested positive Friday morning after testing negative Thursday, according to the White House. Miller’s positive test reportedly spooked many West Wing employees and led to a round of contact tracing and testing, which resulted in no subsequent positive tests.
Prior to a meeting on Saturday with Trump and all the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Guard’s General Joseph Lengyel tested positive too. According to Bloomberg, the test was administered just ahead of the meeting and prevented Lengyel’s attendance. A test conducted later on Saturday was negative, and Lengyel intends to take a third test Monday.
The Secret Service has also had at least 11 people test positive for the coronavirus, but there’s no indication they work in the White House. The Secret Service has 7,600 employees who, along with protecting the president, protect his family, the vice-president, and visiting dignitaries.
Who’s in quarantine?
Several members of the White House coronavirus task force have placed themselves in quarantine after exposure to a positive case in the White House. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, and Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, will self-quarantine for two weeks, while Dr. Anthony Fauci will enter “modified quarantine” after what he described as “low-risk contact” with a positive case in the White House. Fauci plans to work from home when possible and closely watch for any symptoms, but he will still travel to the White House if necessary.
While Fauci, Hahn, and Redfield have not named the staffer they contacted, Miller is a frequent attendee at task-force meetings. Following his wife’s positive test, Stephen Miller is also “not expected to come into the White House for the foreseeable future,” the New York Times reports.
Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, is also in quarantine after coming into contact with a family member who tested positive for the virus. Gilday was not in attendance at Saturday’s meeting of military leaders. And Iowa governor Kim Reynolds is reportedly considering quarantining after a trip to the White House last Wednesday potentially put her in contact with someone with the virus.
Who’s not in quarantine?
Trump and Pence, for starters. Despite the vice-president’s frequent contact with Miller, he will not be self-isolating. Pence spokesperson Devin O’Malley said Sunday that the vice-president has undergone several tests since Miller’s positive test and continues to test negative. He is planning to be at the White House Monday and “will continue to follow the advice of the White House Medical Unit and is not in quarantine,” O’Malley said.
Other key members of the coronavirus task force will not be self-quarantining either. That includes Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Both have reportedly recently tested negative for the virus.
How is the White House responding?
Prior to the positive tests in the White House, few staffers could be seen wearing masks in the West Wing. As one White House employee told the Washington Post, Trump sees wearing a mask as a “sign of weakness.” But protocols are changing with the virus getting so close to the Oval Office.
White House staffers will now be asked about their symptoms and undergo daily temperature checks. New cleaning procedures have also been put in place. In a move that’s long overdue, employees are being encouraged to “work remotely, if at all possible.” And some people, including the Secret Service agents who work at the White House, will finally start wearing masks.
Testing will also be conducted more frequently, with Trump, Pence, and staffers in close contact with them receiving daily tests. The White House is using a rapid test from Abbott Laboratories that can return results in as few as five minutes. But the test has been criticized for its high rate of false negatives.
On Friday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said, “This is probably the safest place that you can come to.”