Health experts working with President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force are accusing White House officials of ignoring the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as they try to stop the spread of the coronavirus within their complex.
Over the last several days, Trump administration officials have attempted to quickly pull together a plan to mitigate the burgeoning outbreak in the White House. But as positive test results have poured in, officials have struggled to make decisions about who should be asked to work from home, whether White House personnel should wear protective masks and even if they should begin contact tracing, three sources familiar with that process told The Daily Beast.
Caught off guard by the significant uptick in new cases, White House officials have turned to the CDC, which is the definitive source of information about how communities can manage the spread of COVID-19 spread. But instead of fully embracing the CDC’s guidelines, the White House has selectively chosen which provisions to adhere to, two senior administration health officials said.
“It’s like they went through, read one sentence on one web page, and decided that’s how they were going to justify all the things they were going to allow to happen,” one official said. “That includes things like not isolating, not wearing masks.”
The White House defended its health practices in a statement, with spokesman Judd Deere saying that “the American people can rest assured with the President’s return that the White House is taking every precaution necessary to protect not only him and the First Family, but every staff member working on the complex to support the federal government’s operations consistent with CDC guidelines and best practices.” The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that officials were severely limiting foot traffic in and around the president, while Deere said that those near him would wear “appropriate PPE.”
Staff members who enter the same space as the president are asked to wear a surgical mask, while those in close contact are told to wear a mask, protective eyewear, gloves and a yellow gown, according to a staff memo seen by The New York Times.
But officials confided to The Daily Beast that they felt nervous about even showing up, fearing that their place of work had become a COVID hot zone. Some were blunt in their dismay with President Trump and worried about possible interactions with him in the near future.
“He’s the president, we can’t run away from him if he approaches,” a senior administration official said. “But the circle of people who feel comfortable telling him if he’s being inconsiderate is very small.”
At issue is what some officials are describing as lax standards around combating the pandemic even as it has entered the White House gates.
White House officials have continued to say that wearing a mask will not be a requirement and that the CDC only recommends its use. The CDC guidelines do use the word “recommend” but they also say that “masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.” The agency also says that if you are sick “you should wear a mask over your nose and mouth if you must be around other people or animals, including pets (even at home).” President Trump, a COVID-19 patient, removed his mask Monday evening after returning home from the Walter Reed Medical Center.
The White House has said it is contacting individuals who came within six feet of President Trump for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before the onset of illness. But CDC guidance says that the White House should be counting all those individuals who came close to Trump in the time leading up to his isolation. The problem? The president did not stay isolated. He took a caravan tour around the Walter Reed hospital on Sunday and came into contact with his security guards and drivers. Trump then returned to the White House on Monday and took off his mask.
The White House originally indicated that the medical unit was solely tracking President Trump’s contacts. But on Tuesday, senior White House officials said the unit had expanded its efforts and was conducting contact tracing for all White House personnel. The D.C. mayor’s office offered to help the White House but never heard back, a source familiar said.
Members of the White House, including the president himself, have long bristled at following the CDC’s COVID19 guidance, often challenging the agency for being too restrictive and overly cautious about the disease. The White House even pressured the agency to dial down the coronavirus death counts in the U.S.
The move to now follow only parts of those guidelines with COVID rampant within its walls underscores the extent to which officials have internalized the president’s public-relations demands over scientific consensus. And it comes at a time when Trump and his loyalists continue to downplay the threats the virus poses and attack those who take abundant precautions.
On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence’s press aide Katie Miller mocked Senator Kamala Harris’ team for proposing the use of plexiglass separators at Wednesday’s VP debate, even though the CDC recommends its use in work settings when applicable. And even after the outbreak took hold of the White House, officials working there walked the halls without masks, though senior officials eventually mandated that everyone wear masks on campus.
Further complicating matters is the secrecy with which the president and his team have operated since the COVID outbreak began at the White House. The administration has implemented a strict policy of secrecy, telling those who tested positive to keep results quiet, two sources familiar with the matter said. Others were told to seek answers about whether they should be tested from their own personal doctors rather than the White House Medical Unit. And the president’s doctor and head of the medical unit, Dr. Sean Patrick Conley, has not answered questions about when the president last tested negative or the results of his lung scans.
Amid all of this, a COVID-positive Trump has continued flouting his own administration’s public-health guidelines. Even on Tuesday, the day after he arrived back at the White House after his brief stint at Walter Reed hospital, the president wanted to escape the confines of the residence and head elsewhere, including to the Oval Office, two sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast, confirming earlier Bloomberg reporting.
By Tuesday afternoon, Trump had accepted advisers’ counsel that it was a bad idea to roam around, though close aides wondered how long this mild display of discipline would hold.
The president’s stir-craziness early this week occurred against the backdrop of a continued rise in the country’s COVID-19 body count—already more than 210,000. In the halls of the White House, distress and anger among officials were palpable, according to interviews with three knowledgeable sources in the administration. Some still nursed ire at Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, who they blamed for the internal disarray and lack of clear guidance beginning late last week.
Several former senior White House officials said that they felt blessed to no longer be working in the White House, for the sake of their own safety and the health of their families or friends or strangers to whom they potentially could have brought the virus.
Through it all, Trump’s attention has remained focused largely on his own political fortunes. In the past few days, he’s made a point of telling people close to him that getting back on the campaign trail as soon as possible and to his big rallies is a top priority for him, according to a source with direct knowledge. This week, the president conspicuously did not mention the need for any substantial changes to the way he and his team have campaigned lately, even in the face of his own diagnosis and urgent hospital care, the source recalled.
“He wants to get back to how it was, and he is excited to do it [this month],” this person said.