WASHINGTON — The West Wing is a ghost town. Staff members are scared of exposure. And the White House is now a treatment ward for not one — but two — COVID patients, including a president who has long taken the threat of the virus lightly.
President Donald Trump’s decision to return home from a military hospital despite his continued illness is putting new focus on the people around him who could be further exposed if he doesn’t abide by strict isolation protocols.
Throughout the pandemic, White House custodians, ushers, kitchen staff and members of the U.S. Secret Service have continued to show up for work in what is now a coronavirus hot spot, with more than a dozen known cases this week alone.
Trump, still contagious, has made clear that he has little intention of abiding by best containment practices.
As he arrived back at the White House on Monday evening, the president defiantly removed his face mask and stopped to pose on a balcony within feet of a White House photographer. He was seen inside moments later, surrounded by numerous people as he taped a video message urging Americans not to fear a virus that has killed more than 210,000 in the U.S. and 1 million worldwide.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the White House was “taking every precaution necessary” to protect not just the first family but “every staff member working on the complex” consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and best practices. He added that physical access to the president would be significantly limited and appropriate protective gear worn by those near him.
Nonetheless, the mood within the White House remains somber, with staff fearful they may have been exposed to the virus. As they confront a new reality — a worksite that once seemed like a bubble of safety is anything but — they also have been engaged in finger-pointing over conflicting reports released about the president’s health as well as a lack of information provided internally.
Many have learned about positive tests from media reports and several were exposed, without their knowledge, to people the White House already knew could be contagious.
Indeed, it took until late Sunday night, nearly three full days after Trump’s diagnosis, for the White House to send a staff-wide note in response. Even then, it did not acknowledge the outbreak.
“As a reminder,” read the letter from the White House Management Office, “if you are experiencing any symptoms … please stay home and do not come to work.” Staff who develop symptoms were advised to “go home immediately” and contact their doctors rather than the White House Medical Unit.
Even when Trump was at the hospital, his staff was not immune to risk.
Trump had aides there recording videos and taking photographs of him. On Sunday evening, he took a surprise drive around the hospital to wave to supporters from the window of an SUV. The Secret Service agents in the car with him were