COVID-19 is once again spreading through the White House, which means either the original outbreak wasn’t stopped, or a new one has begun.
At least five members of Vice-President Mike Pence’s inner circle have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. One of Pence’s closest political advisers, Marty Obst, tested positive on Wednesday. The vice-president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and his personal aide “body man” have since tested positive, as well. It’s not yet clear who the two other COVID-19-positive staffers are.
The vice-president and his wife reportedly tested negative on Sunday morning, but Pence, who chairs the sidelined White House Coronavirus Task Force, will not self-isolate, despite the certainty that he was in close contact with people who had the virus. That is a violation of CDC guidelines.
“While Vice-President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr. Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the vice-president will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” a White House press aide claimed in a statement on Saturday. Pence is still planning to go to a Trump campaign event in North Carolina on Sunday, then a Minnesota event on Monday, and events in North and South Carolina on Tuesday. The White House says he will wear a mask and practice social distancing on the trips. Pence also maintained his schedule prior to Sunday despite having recently traveled with Obst, who tested positive earlier in the week. Neither Pence nor Short wore masks while traveling on Air Force Two on Thursday and Friday, according to CNN.
In addition, the New York Times reported Saturday night that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to keep news of the outbreak from coming out.
It’s not clear if the outbreak is linked to the one that infected President Trump, multiple members of his inner circle, and at least dozens of others three weeks ago. Nor is it clear exactly how many people may have tested positive, or were exposed and soon might be at the White House, where many staff members have reportedly continued to work without face masks despite getting a firsthand look at how easily the coronavirus can spread. But whether it’s a new outbreak from a new source or a flare-up of the earlier one, it’s easy to understand why Meadows may have wanted to keep it a secret. The news is yet another pandemic-related political disaster for the embattled Trump administration, less than a week and a half from Election Day, and at a time when the president is ever-aggressively trying to downplay the pandemic.
Trump hasn’t just been eager to move on from his own serious case of COVID-19 and the White House outbreak, but has been more and more eager to downplay the pandemic since returning to the campaign trail following his recovery. And in recent days, he’s been escalating his efforts to discredit the big third wave of cases being confirmed across the country.
The 83,000 new cases reported on Friday set a new daily record for the U.S. pandemic. Nearly 83,000 more were then reported on Saturday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, and experts predict the country will soon undoubtedly reach 100,000 new cases per day. In the past week, the number of new cases nationwide has increased more than 20 percent, while the number of deaths from COVID-19 has increased by more than 15 percent. In the Midwest, the number of cases per million people has now surpassed both the spring peak in the Northeast during the first wave and the summer peak in the South during the second wave.
Now a third wave is well underway and expected to get worse with the arrival of colder weather and likelihood of more indoor activity throughout much of the country. Yet on Saturday, President Trump continued to claim that the U.S. was “rounding the turn” to the end of the pandemic, as he now says every day. He continued to claim that the virus was “going away,” as he has countless times since the first few U.S. cases were detected more than eight months ago. He continued to falsely claim that the only reason case numbers were up was because there was more testing being done, just as he has been saying for most of the pandemic. He also baselessly alleged that deaths from the virus “were being over-counted because doctors get more money and hospitals get more money.” And he continued to attack lockdown measures and continued to complain that there was too much news coverage of the pandemic — again suggesting it was all part of a plot to damage him politically and discourage his supporters from voting.
“That’s all I hear about now,” Trump said at a Saturday rally in North Carolina. “Turn on television: ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID COVID, COVID.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.’ By the way, on November 4, you won’t hear about it anymore. ‘COVID!’ ‘COVID!’ ‘Please don’t go and vote.’ ‘COVID.’”
This rhetoric is now a big, supposedly entertaining part of Trump’s stump speech amid the final stretch of his campaign. And now more people in the White House have caught COVID-19, just like in communities all over the country, while the president continues to hold large rallies in multiple states experiencing big surges and uncontrolled spread — and where, as seen above, he publicly reduces the pandemic to a punchline.
This post has been updated.