During a national crisis, many Americans look to the White House for guidance and reassurance on how to act and carry on.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, they may look to the White House for a different reason: as a cautionary tale for how the new coronavirus can take hold in absence of proper precautions.
Last week, two White House staffers tested positive for the virus. They were Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary Katie Miller and one of President Donald Trump’s valets.
This has prompted several key officials and members of the administration’s COVID-19 task force to self-quarantine, including the heads of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“SARs-CoV-2 is able to move person to person. Therefore, close contact and daily interactions may promote spreading of the infection,” said Dr. Andres Romero, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Face masks and physical distancing are the strongest strategies we currently have at hand to control the virus spread,” he said.
The CDC recommendedTrusted Source the use of cloth masks “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” — such as the cramped quarters of the West Wing — more than a month ago.
The White House now says it will be asking all employees to wear cloth masks while in the building, except for at their desks. However, President Trump won’t be wearing a mask.
As many states and cities in the nation gear up to reopen restaurants and workplaces, understanding how and why workplace transmission of the virus occurs — and putting policies in place to protect workers — becomes more critical than ever.
One of the key lessons the White House’s response can teach us is the limitations of testing as a way to control COVID-19 spread, according to Susan Hassig, DrPH, MPH, an epidemiologist and director of the master’s in public health program at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Louisiana.
“While testing is a useful tool, it is not a replacement for barrier protection against the virus,” she told Healthline. “Testing is fine, but we know that people can shed the virus before it is detectable. And so proximity and density are still important. The bottom line is that even with frequent testing, you are not going to catch everything, [because] the test can have false negatives.”
And there has been, up until now, a conspicuous lack of barrier protection, such as face masks as well as proper physical distancing measures, even among health professionals during Trump’s briefings on the virus.
“It’s confusing to us as healthcare people to watch these press conferences and none of these people are wearing masks,” said Dr. Eric Mizuno, an internist on staff at Weiss Memorial Hospital and medical director at The Admiral at the Lake nursing home in Chicago.
The Trump administration hasn’t said if any other staff members have contracted the virus or what the total number of infections might be.
But experts say that given the lack of protection and the high likelihood of false negatives in testing, it’s almost certainly higher than reported.
“We know that it’s highly contagious even before you become symptomatic for a few days. So, if you do the math, there are a significant number of likely asymptomatic people in the White House now,” Mizuno told Healthline.