Contact tracing for White House outbreak came too late, experts say

  • President Donald Trump and at least 34 White House staffers and contacts have been infected with the coronavirus following Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination ceremony at the White House Rose Garden on September 26.
  • The White House accepted the CDC’s offer to help with contact tracing on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported.
  • Epidemiologists say those efforts may have come too late: People should be tested within two weeks of getting exposed.
  • The outbreak has likely “spread beyond the White House at this point,” one expert said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Recent visitors to the White House received a letter from health officials on Thursday. It came with a warning: If they had worked in the White House in the past two weeks, attended the recent Supreme Court announcement ceremony, or had close contact with people who fit that description, they should get tested for the coronavirus. Ideally, they should already be quarantining as well.

The letter, signed by 10 health departments in the Washington, DC, area, expressed concern about a lack of contact tracing following a superspreader event at the White House.

Nearly 200 people gathered in the White House’s Rose Garden on September 26 to see President Donald Trump officially nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The majority of those attendees didn’t wear a mask. Many hugged and shook hands. A smaller group attended an indoor reception following the ceremony, where they again mingled without masks. 

At least 34 White House staffers and contacts have since been infected with the coronavirus, according to an internal memo from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That includes bodyguards, family members, pastors, journalists, GOP senators, and advisors.

Trump tested positive for the virus on October 1. Shortly after, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered to help the White House with contact tracing, The Washington Post reported. The White House initially rejected the invitation, a CDC official told The Post, but finally began cooperating with two CDC epidemiologists on Wednesday.

On Thursday, a senior White House official told The Post that the White House had finished contact tracing related to the president’s infection. But White House staffers and administration officials said that many people with potential exposure hadn’t heard from health officials yet.

Epidemiologists say attempts to identify infections at the Rose Garden ceremony may have come too late.

“It’s hard enough to do a normal contact trace. I’m in the middle of doing one right now, and it’s hard enough to do when people are cooperative and you’re doing it by the book,” Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiology professor at Stanford University, told Business Insider. “But when you have a random email out to a bunch of people and some people might respond, some won’t, it’s going to be really hard to know.”

The administration’s delayed efforts could forever obscure the true scale of the outbreak, she added.

“I bet you we’ll never find out because you’re assuming that everybody got tested whether they had symptoms

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D.C. reports increased demand for coronavirus tests amid White House outbreak

A testing site outside the White House on Friday urged anyone who had worked or visited to get tested. That site conducted only 80 tests, far below the hundreds processed at other locations, said Susana Castillo, a Bowser spokeswoman.

The city will not operate a testing site near the White House this week.

The increase in testing demand comes as D.C. is seeing a rise in infections this month. The city was reporting a rolling seven-day average of 5.3 cases per 100,000 residents on Oct. 1 — a number that had risen to 9.5 as of Saturday.

City officials offered no explanation for the increasing caseload, and it’s unclear whether the rise is connected to the White House outbreak. Only D.C. residents appear in the city’s count, and many federal officials declare residency elsewhere.

The rise in testing might also be catching more coronavirus cases. The rate of people testing positive has ticked up from 1.6 percent on Sept. 28 to 1.9 percent as of Thursday.

The greater Washington region reported 1,396 additional coronavirus cases and seven new deaths Monday. Virginia added 854 cases and three deaths, Maryland added 504 cases and four deaths, and D.C. added 38 cases and no deaths.

While the number of fatalities reported Monday was well below the region’s seven-day average of 19 deaths, it lifted the total number of deaths in D.C., Maryland and Virginia since the start of the pandemic to more than 8,000.

The rolling seven-day average of new daily infections across the region Monday stood at 1,651 cases — the highest since Sept. 18.

While caseloads have ticked upward, D.C. on Tuesday will begin to reopen a slate of gyms and indoor swimming pools at city-owned recreation centers. Residents must book 45-minute appointments up to seven days in advance to ensure social distancing.

Pools are available for reservation at six locations and fitness centers at 13 locations.

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Fauci calls White House outbreak a coronavirus superspreader event

More than 150 people gathered in the White House’s Rose Garden on September 26 to see President Donald Trump officially nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Most of them were maskless. Many hugged or shook hands as they mingled in close proximity.

Some attendees even celebrated inside the White House, without masks.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the nomination ceremony was a coronavirus superspreader event. The term refers to a circumstance in which one person infects a disproportionately large number of others, often during a large gathering.

“The data speak for themselves,” Fauci told CBS News in a radio interview on Friday.

Within five days of the event, both the president and the first lady, Melania Trump, were diagnosed with COVID-19. The outbreak has hit at least 34 people in the president’s orbit, including White House staffers, bodyguards, and family members, as well as pastors, journalists, GOP senators, and advisors.

The identity of the person or people who were first infected, however, is unknown.

Defining a superspreader

rose garden barrett

Judge Amy Coney Barrett speaks in the White House’s Rose Garden on September 26 after President Donald Trump nominated her to the Supreme Court.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty


The term superspreader refers to an infected person who transmits the virus to more people than the average patient does. For the coronavirus, that average number, known as R0 (pronounced “R-naught”), has seemed to hover between 2 and 2.5. So anyone who passes the virus to three people or more could be considered a superspreader.

A superspreader event, then, is a set of circumstances that facilitates excessive transmission. In one well-known example, a person transmitted the virus to 52 others during a choir practice in March in Mount Vernon, Washington.

A superspreader event in Arkansas that month involved a pastor and his wife who attended church events a few days before they developed symptoms. Of the 92 people there, 35 got sick. Seven had to be hospitalized, and three died.

In that sense, it’s not so much that individual people are innate superspreaders — it’s the type of activity that enables a person to pass the virus to lots of people.

Those activities generally involve large gatherings — often indoors — in which lots of people from different households come into close, extended contact, such as religious services or parties.

“You can’t have a superspreading event unless there are a lot of people around, so you have to be very careful still about gatherings of people of any size,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University, previously told Business Insider.

rose garden barrett

Attorney General William Barr, right, says goodbye to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the Rose Garden event on September 26.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty


Rachel Graham, an assistant epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said most Rose Garden ceremony attendees weren’t doing anything to mitigate virus transmission.

“They’re doing pretty

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Trump to appear in person Saturday at White House event despite coronavirus outbreak

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks in front of the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump plans to hold an in-person event at the White House on Saturday, less than a week after he was in the hospital with the coronavirus, a White House official told CNBC on Friday.

The gathering marks Trump’s first public event since he revealed last week that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. Since that announcement, numerous other people who work at and are connected to the White House have also tested positive. 

The event is set to feature “remarks to peaceful protesters for law and order,” according to an invitation obtained by ABC News, which first reported the gathering. The White House official confirmed ABC’s reporting to CNBC.

A crowd is expected to gather on the White House South Lawn beginning at 11:30 a.m., according to the invitation posted by ABC.

Trump will address the attendees from the balcony of the White House at 2 p.m., multiple outlets reported.

The in-person event comes as Trump faces criticism for downplaying the threat of the pandemic, and for participating in meetings that disregard social distancing recommendations from health experts in his own administration.

The president contracted the virus less than a week after a large, in-person gathering at the White House celebrating the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. More than a dozen officials who attended that event, including multiple Republican lawmakers, have since tested positive, according to NBC News.

The event was revealed just 25 days away from the presidential election between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump, who is down in the polls, has been off the campaign trail since announcing his diagnosis. 

But Trump has insisted throughout the week that he no longer feels any Covid-19 symptoms, and White House physician Dr. Sean Conley said in a memo Thursday evening that he anticipates the president can make a “safe return to public engagements” by the weekend.

Later Friday, the Trump campaign announced that the president would deliver a speech on Monday evening in Sanford, Florida.

Trump was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last Friday evening, the same day he announced his diagnosis in a tweet. He was discharged on Monday evening and has continued to be treated at the White House by doctors.

Despite a slew of Covid-19 cases being reported in and around the White House and the Trump administration — NBC counted 27 as of Friday morning — the president has not stayed isolated in the White House residence. On Wednesday, Trump returned to the Oval Office, where he was reportedly briefed on coronavirus stimulus talks and the progress of Hurricane Delta.

The list of positive cases includes White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, immigration policy advisor Stephen Miller and multiple members of the White House press

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How the White House Coronavirus Outbreak Compares to Other Clusters

President Donald Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee at a crowded Rose Garden event on Sept. 26 where few people wore masks or observed social distancing. Between it and Oct. 2, when Trump was helicoptered to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of Covid-19, he headlined a string of risky events, many indoors, that have sent people scrambling to get tested.

In addition to Trump, at least 23 people who have been in close proximity to the president, his campaign or the White House have tested positive for the coronavirus. The number of positive cases may be higher, as some staffers and event attendees haven’t publicly shared their diagnoses.

The growing number of cases reported among people with contact to the White House shows how the virus can rapidly spread among people in close contact without wearing masks.

For comparison, in all of Washington, with a population of more than 700,000, the seven-day average of daily Covid-19 cases was 58 on Thursday.

For the past week, there have been about eight cases a day per 100,000 people across the capital, and major cities on the Eastern Seaboard have seen relatively low positive cases per capita, too.

Note: Average daily positive cases based on the weekly average Oct. 2–8, per 100,000 people

People testing positive following Sept. 26 Rose Garden event


From top to bottom row, left to right: 

The White House cluster has the potential to affect the activities of the federal government and Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday she “won’t go anywhere near the White House” in reference to the outbreak when asked about whether she would resume in-person talks with the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponed floor votes until Oct. 19, though the Judiciary Committee, of which two Republican members have tested positive for the virus, will begin hearings for Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court on Oct. 12.

After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that the second debate next week between Trump and his rival, Democrat Joe Biden, would be held virtually, Trump said he would not participate. The president has also said he will be back on the campaign trail soon and that he believes he is no longer contagious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines suggest patients who have had symptoms should not be around others until they’ve experienced 10 symptom-free days.

A Growing List of People Testing Positive for Covid-19

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White House Outbreak May Have Spread Coronavirus To Other Communities : Shots

Numerous people have tested positive after attending an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination of Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Numerous people have tested positive after attending an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination of Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House’s apparent failures to thoroughly contact trace its current coronavirus outbreak has led local health officers to take matters into their own hands.

The District of Columbia and nine neighboring jurisdictions are calling on White House staff and visitors who might be connected to the recent outbreak there to contact their local health departments.

“We recommend that if you have worked in the White House in the past two weeks, attended the Supreme Court announcement in the Rose Garden on Saturday, September 26, 2020, and/or have had close contact with others who work in those spaces or attended those events, you should get a test for COVID,” the health officers wrote in a letter shared by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser early Thursday morning.

The authors note that this recommendation is being made based on “our preliminary understanding that there has been limited contact tracing performed to date.”

Thirty-seven White House staff and other contacts have tested positive, according to a website tracking the outbreak, citing public information such as media reports and tweets. Eleven of those positive cases are connected to the Amy Coney Barrett nomination event in the Rose Garden on September 26, according to the tracker, from which many attendees flew home to other states.

Emergency physician Leana Wen notes that, given that that event was nearly two weeks ago, it’s likely the outbreak has already sparked other infections.

“We’re not even talking about first generation spread or second generation to spread, we’re talking about third generation spread,” she says. In other words, those who were exposed at the Rose Garden could have infected others who have since infected still more people.

When it comes to tracking down all the contacts that might be connected to the White House outbreak, there are many daunting challenges, from the country’s fractured public health system to the Trump administration’s approach.

1. The White House is on federal land

There are reports of an increase in coronavirus tests in D.C., and some high case numbers in recent days, which has prompted concerns that the outbreak at the White House could be driving spread in the local area. It’s difficult to know for sure if these things are connected.

But because the White House is federal property, the job of contact tracing an outbreak on the White House grounds doesn’t fall to the District’s public health staff, it falls to the White House Medical Unit.

The open letter comes after D.C. Mayor Bowser

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D.C.-area health departments fault contact-tracing efforts amid White House coronavirus outbreak

ASSOCIATED PRESS



a group of people in a park: President Donald Trump, center, stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as they arrive for a Sept. 26 ceremony to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.


© Associated Press
President Donald Trump, center, stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as they arrive for a Sept. 26 ceremony to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an extraordinary step, the Washington, D.C., Department of Health has released an open letter appealing to all White House staff and anyone who attended a Sept. 26 event in the Rose Garden to seek medical advice and take a COVID-19 test.

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The letter indicates a lack of confidence in the White House medical team’s own contact-tracing efforts regarding an ongoing virus outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump, multiple senior staff members and two U.S. senators, among others.

News Pulse: White House is not tracing contacts of guests and staff at Rose Garden event 10 days ago: New York Times

Coronavirus update: Expert calls for ‘radical transparency’ on Trump’s coronavirus treatment and progress as more in president’s circle test positive

Co-signed by nine other local health departments from neighboring jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia, the letter flatly states a belief that contact tracing on the outbreak has been insufficient.

It says the public appeal is based on, “our preliminary understanding that there has been limited contact tracing performed to date, there may be other staff and residents at risk for exposure to COVID positive individuals.”

It asks all White House employees, anyone who attended the Sept. 26 event and anyone who may have been in contact with those people to “contact your local health department for further guidance/questions regarding your potential need to quarantine.”

The letter represents a rising level of concern and a clear shift in strategy by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government, which had previously remained publicly hands-off and said it trusted the White House’s robust medical operation to handle its own contact tracing and follow-up.

Bowser said earlier this week that repeated attempts to contact the White House over the outbreak had received a “very cursory” response but that she believed the necessary steps were being taken.

“There are established public health protocols at the White House that are federal in nature,” Bowser said on Monday. “We assume that those protocols have been engaged.”

A Health Department spokeswoman did not respond to questions on whether the letter had been directly sent to any White House employees or people who attended the Sept. 26 event, or if the D.C. government had been provided with a list of attendees.

The move highlights the public health dilemma faced by Bowser’s government regarding the current outbreak. The Trump White House has operated for months in open violation of several D.C. virus regulations, hosting multiple gatherings that exceeded the local 50-person limit and in which many participants didn’t wear masks.

It shines a further spotlight on the Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony to introduce Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Multiple attendees, including Trump and University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins,

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White House correspondents advised to avoid grounds amid coronavirus outbreak

White House reporters were encouraged to avoid going near the executive residence Wednesday in light of President Trump and multiple members of his administration testing positive for COVID-19.

The White House Correspondents Association, an organization comprised of journalists covering the president, warned its members against working in or around his residence because of the outbreak.

In a statement, the WHCA’s executive board said they “strongly encourage all journalists to avoid working from the White House grounds entirely if it can be avoided.”

The WHCA board also said any journalists who have been at the White House since Sept. 26 should be tested for COVID-19, the contagious respiratory disease caused by the incurable novel coronavirus.

Mr. Trump and several allies and administration officials have recently tested positive for COVID-19, as well as three White House reporters and multiple staffers in the White House press office.

It “would be foolish of us to assume that the situation at the White House or on the campaign trail will improve dramatically over the coming four weeks,” the WHCA board said in a statement.

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Stephen Miller Tests Positive as White House Outbreak Grows

Here’s what you need to know:

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

On Tuesday evening, senior administration officials confirmed that Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s top speechwriter and a policy adviser, had tested positive for the coronavirus, joining a growing list of Mr. Trump’s close aides who have the virus.

“Over the last five days I have been working remotely and self-isolating, testing negative every day through yesterday,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “Today, I tested positive for Covid-19 and am in quarantine.”

Mr. Miller is married to Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director. A senior administration official said Ms. Miller, who contracted the virus this spring and returned to work in May, was tested Tuesday morning and was negative for any new infection.

On Tuesday, many White House offices were empty as officials stayed home to wait out the infectious period from an outbreak of the coronavirus within the building and among people who had been there.

President Trump was in the White House residence, convalescing, as a number of advisers and other officials stayed home, either because they had contracted the coronavirus or had been near people who did.

The White House communications and press shops were bereft of people. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, announced on Monday that she had tested positive. Two other press office aides have also contracted the virus, and two more aides on Tuesday were said to have tested positive, people familiar with the results said.

The outbreak in the White House, which has extended to some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, has raised concerns in the city that surrounds it. Washington, D.C., which has managed to bring infection rates down in recent weeks through preventive laws and high rates of compliance, has almost no control over the federal government.

The city reported 105 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, the highest number since June 3.

The gathering at the Rose Garden would have violated the city’s mandates limiting the size of gatherings and requiring masks. But because the White House is on federal property, it is exempt from such rules.

City officials said they would be closely monitoring infection trends for several days to see if the Capitol and White House cases affected the city’s overall infection rate.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The White House physician, Dr. Sean P. Conley, said on Tuesday that President Trump was experiencing no symptoms of Covid-19 and doing “extremely well” on his first full day at home since a three-night stay in the hospital.

But outside doctors and medical experts in Covid-19 and lung disease said they were struggling to piece together an accurate picture of Mr. Trump’s health. Far from having vanquished Covid-19, the outside experts said, Mr. Trump is most

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Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak

The Pentagon is retracing the steps of its top brass after a positive coronavirus case among senior officials forced Defense Department heads into quarantine.



Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak


© Greg Nash
Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak

News of Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray testing positive, which came after he attended a Sept. 27 White House event, broke after Ray had met with several other senior leaders at the Pentagon last week.

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The Defense Department has since raced to conduct contact tracing, highlighting the stark difference between the Pentagon and White House, where administration officials have been reluctant to reveal key timeline details after President Trump and top aides tested positive.

“Simply because it is such a threat to readiness and can disable a ship, a building, a base, they take this very seriously,” Steve Morrison, a public health expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Pentagon’s response.

“It didn’t seem they were looking to be micromanaged by anyone, they sort of kicked in to gear,” he added.

Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday that the Pentagon is “conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission.”

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for specifics regarding its contact tracing and what additional precautions are being taken.

Hoffman said Tuesday that all potential close contacts from the meetings involving Ray “are self-quarantining and have been tested.”

One of those close contacts, Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, has since tested positive. He was quarantining when his results were announced by the Defense Department.

“We are aware of General Thomas’ positive test for COVID-19. At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report. We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing,” the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday night.

Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, are self-quarantining following Ray’s positive test.

Others who are quarantining include Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown; Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond; National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson; and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency.

The officials were possibly exposed during several meetings that Ray attended last week.

Ray tested positive on Monday after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend. He had been indoors at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star family event in which several other top defense officials, including Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, were in attendance.

His diagnosis came amid a growing coronavirus outbreak centered on the White House, where Trump held an event in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.

Milley and Esper have so

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