The White House Coronavirus Cluster Is a Result of the Trump Administration’s Policies

Marine One, the presidential helicopter, carries President Donald Trump away from the White House on the way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, October 2, 2020, in Washington.

The United States is still grappling with the news that President Donald Trump and several members of his administration and campaign have tested positive for the coronavirus. They join the more than 8 million Americans who have contracted the virus—and gained a new preexisting condition—thanks in part to the Trump administration’s failure to take the virus seriously. The president and his staff continue to downplay the severity of the virus, even now that the president himself has contracted it.

Throughout the United States, cases are on the rise again. The country reported an average of 49,891 new cases per day during the seven days ending October 12, up more than 6,000 daily from the week prior, based on the authors’ analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. Yet the mask mandate and other public health measures put in place by the Washington, D.C., Department of Health had appeared to be limiting the spread of the coronavirus in the capital: Cases had been slowly declining, with D.C. reporting about 60 new cases per day during July and an average of 44 new cases per day in September. During the last week of September, D.C. reported an average of 39 new cases per day, and only 1.1 percent of tests reported that week were positive. But after several unsafe events held by the Trump administration and its subsequent refusal to contain the related outbreaks, cases in Washington may be on the rise. D.C. reported an average of 58 new cases daily October 1 through 12, and 1.4 percent of tests came back positive over that period.

This column outlines the events that led to an outbreak of coronavirus cases within the White House and Trump campaign; the steps the White House has taken to hinder containment of this outbreak; and the impact this is having throughout the nation’s capital, including for many people without direct connections to White House politics.

Unsafe events

At the heart of the cluster of COVID-19 cases surrounding President Trump are two recent events. The first was a campaign fundraiser at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on September 25, and the second was the ceremony and indoor reception for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at the White House on September 26. Multiple people who attended the events have since tested positive for the coronavirus. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who was at the fundraiser, tested positive on September 30, and a dozen attendees of the nomination ceremony have since tested positive, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Thom Tillis (R-SC). According to an internal government memo obtained by ABC News, the White House has been linked to a total of 34 COVID-19 cases.

Figure 1

That the virus spread at these events is, unfortunately, no surprise, as both events went against public health guidance, including that from Washington, D.C., and the Trump administration’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Both recommend maintaining at least six feet of distance between people and wearing masks, and both advise against large gatherings, like the nomination ceremony, and small indoor gatherings among people who don’t live in the same household. The evidence is clear: Wearing masks and minimizing time in poorly ventilated areas are two of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The campaign fundraiser was indoors, and pictures from the nomination ceremony show that few people wore masks outside or at the earlier indoor reception. By ignoring scientific evidence and violating the public health guidance around the coronavirus, the White House and Trump campaign placed the president and others in a setting that generated, in the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “a super-spreader event.”

In the days following these events, the president and his advisers continued to attend large gatherings—including the presidential debate, fundraisers, and political rallies—and remained unmasked. In the course of these travels, thousands of people may have been exposed to the coronavirus from the White House cluster.

Lack of transparency

After these unsafe events, the Trump administration further hindered public health by refusing to share timely information about the outbreak that could slow its spread. The outbreak first became public after October 1 news reports stating that White House senior adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive for the coronavirus. Rather than following public health guidelines and quarantining immediately after learning of Hicks’ diagnosis earlier that day, Trump’s staff sought to keep her diagnosis private and proceeded with an indoor campaign fundraiser in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Shortly after the news broke about Hicks’ diagnosis, President Trump announced that he and the First Lady were being tested and would be quarantining. Prior to this announcement, Trump told Fox News he had not yet received his test results—but news reports say the president already knew that he had tested positive for the virus.

The White House refuses to say when the president’s most recent negative test was, compounding the opacity of the administration’s response. This is a crucial piece of information for people who may have come into contact with him while he was infectious. The administration also appears to have been slow in efforts to contact trace following the nomination ceremony, at first only notifying via email people who came in contact with the president in the two days before his Thursday test. Washington, D.C., and nine other local jurisdictions have recommended that White House staff and attendees of the nomination ceremony be tested for COVID-19.

Contact tracing is an essential component of the public health response for infectious diseases such as COVID-19. By asking people with known cases about with whom they came in close contact and when, contact tracers can notify people who might be at risk so that they can quarantine and get tested, thereby preventing additional infections. Contact tracing is also valuable to the public health community’s understanding of how a virus spreads and efforts to prevent future superspreading events.

The White House’s failure to contact trace its own superspreading event, for the Supreme Court nominee, and refusal to fully cooperate with the D.C. Department of Health endangers the health of political appointees and nonpolitical staff who work at the White House; members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill; and local residents in the Washington, D.C., area.

Trump’s COVID-19 response is out of touch with ordinary Americans

The administration’s response to the outbreak at the White House has shown apathy toward everyday Americans. Beyond endangering the high-profile advisers who work for him, President Trump’s actions have exposed countless others to the coronavirus. Four White House residence staff have tested positive for the virus in the outbreak, as have journalists covering the president, and cases appear to be rising in the Washington metro area after weeks of a low plateau.

The administration’s apparent apathy is hardly surprising, considering its long record of anti-worker policies and dismissal of the coronavirus as a serious threat. Despite receiving early warnings from the intelligence community, Trump waited until April to activate the Defense Production Act to allow for a ramping up of the manufacture of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) crucial to the safety of front-line workers. Amid dire PPE shortages, the CDC advised health care workers to improvise with homemade masks or reuse masks intended for single use. To date, more than 750 health care personnel have died from COVID-19.

Trump wanted the U.S. economy to reopen by Easter, and contrary to the advice of public health experts, he urged states to rapidly lift mitigation measures—grave mistakes that led to a spike in cases over the summer in the South and West. The Trump administration’s own CDC recently highlighted the efficacy of mask mandates, targeted business closures, and other strategies in a recent study of the spread of the coronavirus in Arizona. The president also pushed to reopen schools before it was safe to do so and without assistance to school districts to make reopening safe, leading teachers to have to purchase their own PPE. All of these actions have made it more likely that the average American will contract the virus, opening them up to high hospital bills and lifelong health problems, as well as increasing their risk of death.

After announcing that he tested positive for the virus, the president was admitted to Walter Reed medical center, traveling there via helicopter out of “an abundance of caution.” While there, he received a variety of treatments to fight the virus, including infusions of remdesivir and dexamethasone, drugs normally given only to COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill. While the president has access to five-star care, that isn’t the reality for many patients with COVID-19. Due to the high levels of cases seen in some parts of the country, even seriously ill patients have been turned away from hospitals. President Trump’s statements that the COVID-19 death toll “is what it is” and the country shouldn’t let the virus “dominate your life” are especially callous considering his privileged access to coronavirus care.

Conclusion

The Trump administration’s careless behavior during the past few weeks has undercut public health at every turn. As is typical for this administration, it put politics ahead of science. By holding large, indoor, and unmasked events; by announcing positive cases only after pressure from the public; and by refusing to conduct timely, transparent contact tracing, the Trump administration has seemingly done everything in its power to ensure that its coronavirus outbreak spreads. It is past time that the president and his advisers take the pandemic seriously and start leading by example, especially after numbering among the 8 million Americans infected with the coronavirus. 

Thomas Waldrop is a policy analyst for Health Policy at the Center for American Progress. Emily Gee is the health economist for Health Policy at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.