WASHINGTON – The White House is increasingly looking like an imperfect microcosm of the challenges that all Americans face in keeping the coronavirus at bay as huge swaths of the nation move to reopen.
Two aides who work in the White House complex are known to have tested positive in the past week for the coronavirus despite layers of security there, including access to rapid testing, temperature checks for all who enter and social distancing protocols.
President Donald Trump on Monday told reporters that in terms of testing, “we have met the moment and we have prevailed.” But the ability of the virus to infiltrate the White House underscores the risks for Americans at workplaces, schools and elsewhere.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University, described the White House as demonstrating the “best” and “worst” of virus mitigation.
“Even with great availability of testing and the presence of the top public health experts in the world, the virus has found its way into the White House,” Gostin said. “What’s worse is they’ve shown the rest of the country the guidelines they want the rest of America to follow, but they are unable to do it themselves.”
Here's a look at some of the ways the White House efforts to stem the virus illustrate the rough road ahead for all Americans as they try to return to work with the virus lurking in the background:
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly boasted that the U.S. has the best testing. That’s true at the White House. Anyone who comes into close contact with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence must take a test before meeting with them.
But even with robust testing, the virus still managed to reach the West Wing. White House officials said one of the aides who tested positive, Pence press secretary Katie Miller, tested negative one day before she got a positive test result on Friday.
Ordinary Americans being expected to go back to work -- like those laboring at meatpacking plants that Trump has ordered to remain open — won’t have that kind of access to testing.
And testing, even when you have it, isn't perfect. Dr. Francis Collins, director for the National Institutes of Health, said during congressional testimony last week that the Abbott ID Now machine, which is used by the White House to perform rapid coronavirus tests, can sometimes fail to detect a patient who is positive. The incubation period for the virus is dayslong, so it is possible that a person who had contracted coronavirus could initially test negative.
SOCIAL DISTANCING CHALLENGES
Just as in many workplaces that are open, there is no shortage of reminders at the White House complex to practice social distancing and practice good hygiene. A directive was issued to White House staffers on Monday requiring everyone who enters the West Wing to wear a mask.
Some aides say they already wear masks when they can’t maintain 6 feet of distance (1.8 meters) from their colleagues, and signage reminding staffers to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, including frequent hand-washing, is posted around the White House.
But the White House complex is packed with hundreds of workers during normal times. In parts of the complex, aides and workers are shoulder-to-shoulder when walking through narrow hallways and share crowded work spaces.
“It’s a small, crowded place,” Trump senior adviser Kevin Hassett acknowledged in a CBS “Face the Nation” interview. “It’s a little bit risky. But you have to do it because you have to serve your country.”
After Miller, the Pence aide, tested positive last week, White House officials moved quickly to track down six of her colleagues who had been in close contact with her in recent days, just as they were getting ready to fly with the vice president to Iowa.
Her colleagues deplaned and were tested -- and all came back negative. In the days since the positive tests of Miller and a military aide to Trump, the White House Medical Unit and CDC tracing experts have sought out for testing individuals who have had contact with the White House employees.
For cities and states, the process of identifying and testing those who may have unwittingly come in contact with infected people will be a huge undertaking. It's one that can't be skipped if reopening is going to happen before a vaccine becomes available, officials in some of the hardest-hit cities say.
On Friday, New York City -- the area hardest hit by the virus -- announced the launch of a 1,000 person test-and-trace corps that is set to be up and running by May 25. The city has set a goal of testing 20,000 people per day by the end of May and 50,000 per day by Aug. 1, benchmarks it sees as crucial to lowering transmissions.
Trump’s drastically reduced and uncertain travel schedule shows how even the White House has struggled with the prospect of getting the president back into a regular routine.
He’s made only two trips outside Washington since calling on Americans on March 13 to heed to federal guidelines to stem the virus -- a trip to an Arizona Honeywell face mask plant last week and a visit to Virginia to see off a U.S. Naval hospital ship bound for New York to serve as a backstop for the area’s hospitals.
The president said he was planning on heading to Ohio last week, but that trip was scrapped. He is expected to travel to Pennsylvania later this week.
On Monday, he fumed on Twitter that the “great people of Pennsylvania” -- a critical battleground for Trump in November -- “want their freedom now," a not-so-subtle dig at the state’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to relax virus-related restrictions.
Rep. Dwight Evans, a Pennsylvania Democrat, clapped back that his constituents want the same sort of tools readily available at the White House to minimize their risk.
“What people want is freedom FROM THE VIRUS,” Evans tweeted. “And we’ll only get it if we have #UniversalTesting + tracing + isolating.”
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.