WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s positive test for Covid-19 has triggered a public-health crisis at the highest levels of American government and set the stage for a vast contact tracing effort to understand how the president and First Lady Melania Trump got infected and to whom they might have spread the virus.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, called it a public-health “nightmare.”
The Friday morning that the Trumps both tested positive came not long after Hope Hicks, one of the president’s top aides, also tested positive. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported Friday that Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel had tested positive this week. And later on Friday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that he, too, had tested positive; Lee had attended an at least one in-person event at the White House in the past week.
— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) October 2, 2020
Dr. Sandro Galea, the dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, says it isn’t especially surprising to learn that Trump had tested positive. “He was at high risk for contracting the virus because he was in contact with a lot of people without observing physical distancing, without wearing a mask, without taking appropriate precautionary measures,” Galea tells Rolling Stone.
According to Jha, Hicks and Trump were likely infected between Saturday and Monday of this week, with the possibility that one infected the other. Still, without knowing for certain who infected Hicks and then Trump, a massive contract tracing effort would be necessary to track down who had been near the Hicks from Monday onward and Trump from Tuesday onward, Jha says. “If someone was in an enclosed space with him or Ms Hicks during their contagious period and not wearing a mask, they are at risk,” he wrote on Twitter.
Retracing every within-six-foot contact of Trump’s and Hicks’ in the past five days to a week could prove to be a daunting task.
On Tuesday, Trump, members of his family, top campaign aides, and senior administration officials traveled to Case Western Reserve University in Ohio for the first presidential debate. There, they not only spent nearly two hours in close quarters in an enclosed auditorium, but also most of Trump’s entourage, according to firsthand press reports, ignored basic public-health guidelines and refused to wear masks.
Here’s how the pool reporter on the scene described it:
From your pool era vantage point, all family members who entered without a mask, members of his administration and other guests were not wearing a mask. A Cleveland Clinic doctor in a white lab coat started to approach Trump family guests to ask them to put on masks. She offered them one in case they didn’t get one. She never approached any family members but as she got closer to them, someone shook their head and no one she reminded to put on a mask ended up putting one on.
Jill Biden, Sen. Chris Coons and others sitting in the Democratic section began to look over. Trump family members began to ask their guests what had happened.
When the doctor, who refused to comment to the press, walked off the floor, a debate hall staffer told her “That’s all you can do.”
On Wednesday, Trump and top aides flew from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota. Trump attended a private, in-person fundraiser at a supporter’s home in a tony Minneapolis subdivision and then held a rally at the Duluth airport that night before flying back to the nation’s capital.
On Thursday, Trump traveled to New Jersey, where he held a “roundtable with supporters and a fundraiser,” according to the White House pool report. From there he traveled to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. After the announcement of Trump’s positive, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) urged those who attended Thursday’s event at Bedminster to get tested and self-quarantine.
Dr. Jha, the Brown University public-health expert, said everyone who has been within six feet or so of the president since Monday should be identified and tested for Covid-19. He also lamented Trump’s own refusal and the refusal of his family, campaign, and administration to obey basic guidelines. “Everyone around the President should have always worn masks,” Jha wrote. “People should have been doing social distancing. And limited his contacts. We will get though this. But lots to do to identify everyone, quarantine and test folks.”
Dr. Galea at Boston University says the spread of Covid-19 in the upper levels of the Trump White House will depend in large part on whether staff members followed the public-health guidelines to socially distance and wear masks in their interactions with the president and colleagues. “Were they keeping physical distance? Were they wearing masks? It really depends on how they were interacting with one another,” Galea says.
Galea says he hopes — but isn’t holding his breath — that the White House uses the president and first lady’s positive tests as a “teachable moment” to show what a real contract tracing effort and self-quarantine regimen looks like. “It could an important moment,” he says. However, the dark irony of this president testing positive after having dismissed the virus for so many months, Galea adds, “should not be lost on any of us.”
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