The flags are so red they might as well be wailing like sirens.
As more people in and around the White House test positive for the virus that causes Covid-19, no event is being more scrutinized than the Rose Garden event last Saturday, where President Trump announced the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That gathering, as videos and photos of it make clear, violated so many of the recommendations that everyone else has been told to adopt this year.
There’s Mike Lee, the Republican senator from Utah, hugging people. There’s former White House aide Kellyanne Conway having close conversations with others. There are more than 150 people, most maskless, sitting crowded in together and glad-handing. Some of them, like University of Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, traveled there from other places and would return back to their communities.
Five to six days later, those three, along with the president, first lady Melania Trump, and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, were attendees all diagnosed with Covid-19 — a time frame that fits with how long it takes for the virus to build up enough in someone’s system to the point that it can cause symptoms and be detected by tests.
As public health sleuths investigate how and when the pathogen infiltrated the inner circle of U.S. leadership, the Barrett event offers a case study in what experts say has been the administration’s recklessness over the months in creating settings that could abet the spread of SARS-CoV-2, including other White House events and campaign rallies. It underscores the limitations of the White House’s strategy of largely relying on testing to create a sense of security around the president without embracing other safety measures. In a way, experts said, the fact that a president who has dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic and mocked certain precautions contracted the coronavirus felt like it was his administration’s laxness catching up to him.
“Why are we having SCOTUS nominations in person?” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “These in-person, especially indoor events, but even outdoor events, should not be taking place, especially not from our leaders who are trying to set good examples for this, or who should be trying to set good examples.”
He added: “This is just befuddling and dumbfounding how they are not taking this seriously and being the leaders that they should be.”
The actual announcement of Barrett took place outside in the Rose Garden, but there were also gatherings inside the White House that day. It’s not clear who was inside with whom and for how long. And while experts say that staying outdoors or at least in well-ventilated areas is safer than packing into stuffy rooms, other precautions — like masks and distancing and limiting the size of gatherings — are emphasized as ways to reduce the risk of transmission.
“If you’re outdoors and you’re sitting next to people for an hour, and