The vice president last Saturday attended the White House event commemorating Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, along with at least eight people who have since tested positive for Covid-19. One of them, Sen. Mike Lee, was seated right behind Pence the entire time, undoubtedly breathing directly onto the back of the vice president’s head at close range. Since then, Pence has been in contact with countless others who have been exposed to the virus, including the president. Much of this contact has taken place indoors.
But no one in the Trump administration seems to understand what public health experts have been preaching for months about how the coronavirus spreads. Nor do they seem care about the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance that anyone who spends more than 15 minutes within six feet of someone who tests positive should isolate for 14 days. Not only is Pence not doing that, he’s been actively campaigning, and is currently gearing up to debate Sen. Kamala Harris at the University of Utah.
“It would be grossly negligent to break quarantine to come out for [the debate], especially after such significant exposure,” Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, tells Rolling Stone. “He sat right in front of somebody for a very significant period of time, and that doesn’t even account for any indoor activities. It would go against public health guidance and all of the recommendations that we’ve been giving the public.”
Though Popesku and other public health experts are adamant that the debate should be either postponed or, better yet, conducted virtually, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group responsible for organizing the three presidential debates and lone vice presidential debate, is resolved to hold it in-person. After Trump tested positive last Friday, the group did agree to seat Pence and Harris 13 feet apart, instead of seven as has been previously planned. Politico reported Monday that a plexiglass shield would be erected in between the two participants and moderator Susan Page.
The changes came after lobbying from the Biden campaign. Harris reportedly advocated for the use of a plexiglass shield. Pence’s team isn’t so keen on the idea, and even mocked Harris for suggesting it. “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Katie Miller, a Pence spokesperson, told Politico. (Miller missed three weeks of work in May after testing positive for Covid-19.)
Considering Pence’s recent exposure to the virus, these last-minute precautions aren’t nearly enough to ensure a safe debate. “It’s better to be 12 feet apart than seven feet apart, but at the same time it is completely possible to be infected by inhaling the virus from somebody who is producing respiratory droplets more than six feet away from you,” says Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. “A lot of it will depend on the size of the room and the ventilation, but really the best thing to do would be not to have an in-person debate at all.”
Pence isn’t the only concern. The vice president’s entire staff has likely been exposed to the virus, and the more of them who are in the room on Wednesday, the higher the risk is for everyone. “We don’t know the minimum amounts of this virus you have to be exposed to it or catch it,” Rasmussen says. “If all of those people [from Pence’s team] are potentially exhaling respiratory droplets that are filled with virus into the room, you’re going to get to high concentrations faster, and anybody who’s in that room is going to be exposed to a higher dose and it’s going to increase their chance of getting infected.”
One might think that the first presidential debate last Tuesday would have served as a cautionary tale. A maskless, possibly Covid-positive Trump barked onstage for 90 minutes as his team sat in the audience, also not wearing masks despite guidance from organizers. In the days following the event, Trump and others who traveled with him to the debate or helped him prepare for it tested positive, as did at least 11 people involved in the setup and staging of the event debate, which took place at the Cleveland Clinic.
Pence has since tested negative, but test results aren’t a legitimate reason to break quarantine. The CDC’s guidelines are in place for a reason, and Pence — who, lest we not forget, helms the White House Coronavirus Task Force — is now skirting them in order to recreate an event that just a week ago may have helped facilitate an explosion of Covid-19 cases throughout the Trump administration and adjacent Republican circles.
“The reason for that 14-day quarantine if you’re exposed to even one confirmed case, much less [what Pence has been exposed to], is the fact that tests are not 100-percent reliable,” Rasmussen says. “We just saw that as [Press Secretary] Kaleigh McEnany has now tested positive after several days of negative tests. This virus has a 14-day incubation period, which means that you can still be infected without the virus being detectable by a test.”
Trying to drum up ways to make the debate on Wednesday safe is almost beside the point. The event is not going to be safe. Pence has been directly exposed to an untold number of Covid-positive people in the past two weeks. An in-person debate given what’s known about Pence’s exposure is so irresponsible that Popescu refused to even suggest measures that could reduce the risk of transmission.
“It would be like me giving guidance on how to drink and drive safer,” she says. “You just shouldn’t do it.”
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