Donald Trump’s top spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, announced she had tested positive for coronavirus on Monday, in yet another escalation of a rampaging outbreak that hospitalized the president and threw the White House into disarray – even as Trump announced he was leaving hospital.
Related: White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tests positive for coronavirus – live
With the pandemic surging, the economy foundering and the election fast approaching, operations at the White House appeared to grind to a halt, with senior staff complaining anonymously to reporters they had been kept in the dark about the president’s condition and given no instruction about how to stay safe as more than a dozen colleagues and recent visitors announced they had Covid-19.
The state of Trump’s health was muddled by mixed messages from his doctors and top aides – and by erratic moves by Trump himself, who left the hospital for a brief car ride on Sunday night and on Monday morning cut loose a string of all-caps campaign-related tweets.
However, early Monday afternoon, just as a fresh medical briefing on the president was awaited and amid growing speculation, Trump tweeted that he would leave the hospital that evening, at 6.30pm.
He simultaneously downplayed once again the seriousness of the disease, having received himself the best care available anywhere, by saying : “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Trump was admitted Friday evening and had reportedly demanded to be released on Sunday, but was assuaged with the controversial ride in an armored SUV to greet supporters outside the hospital.
Citing an anonymous source, Vanity Fair magazine reported on Monday that Donald Trump Jr was worried by his father’s behavior and had sought help from his siblings in “staging an intervention”.
Depending on when he contracted the virus, it seemed Trump had not yet emerged from the window when he is likely to be infectious. It was unclear how his return to the White House could impact the escalating health crisis there.
No internal communications detailing precautions staff should take had been issued, a senior White House official told Axios. It’s “ridiculous,” the official said. “A bunch of us are talking about it and just gonna make the calls on our own.”
Video: Kayleigh McEnany tests positive for COVID-19 (Reuters)
Democrats condemned the White House’s handling of the outbreak – and the fact Trump and his colleagues allowed it to happen in the first place – as a glaring culmination of an abysmal track record on the virus.
“These people think this is all a game,” tweeted Senator Chris Murphy. “They don’t care about the rules, which is why we have 200,000 dead. Vote them all out.”
The US has recorded more than 210,000 deaths from Covid-19 and about 7.5m cases.
Apart from the health implications for the president and everyone around him, the White House outbreak could not have come at a worse time for Trump, who is slipping further each day in the polls.
Trump’s numbers show no sign of a sympathy bounce. The proportion of Americans who disapproved of his response to the pandemic rose three points in the last week to 57%, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll. Two separate high-quality polls showed Joe Biden with a double-digit lead among voters 65 and older, a group Trump won by eight points in 2016.
Less than a week ago, it appeared Trump had suffered a terrible setback when he turned in a universally panned performance in the first debate.
But in retrospect the debate looks like a high point. On Friday evening, the 74-year-old was taken to hospital, where he has received a steroid treatment, an experimental antibody treatment, an antiviral drug and supplemental oxygen – despite his lead doctor’s original denial that oxygen had been given.
“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, the president,” Dr Sean Conley said.
The list of close Trump associates infected with Covid-19, including many who attended a White House ceremony for supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on 27 September, has steadily grown.
The list includes first lady Melania Trump, three Republican senators, top advisers Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager Bill Stepien, the president’s “body man”, adviser Chris Christie and Republican party chair Ronna McDaniel.
That was not including McEnany – or at least four members of the press. One of those reporters, Michael Shear of the New York Times, said on Monday that the White House had made “zero” effort to conduct contact tracing around his case, indicating precautions had still not been put in place.
McEnany conducted an in-person press briefing on Thursday, a day after Hicks was diagnosed. On Sunday evening, McEnany walked out of the White House to address reporters, removing her mask as she did so. On Monday, McEnany insisted the White House had determined no reporters were exposed by her case.
The person in line to take command should Trump be debilitated, Vice-President Mike Pence, is not in Washington, having left for Utah, where he is scheduled to debate Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris on Wednesday night.
Pence’s office has said he and wife Karen Pence have repeatedly tested negative but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that does not mean it is responsible for Pence to interact freely with other people. Individuals who have come into contact with known carriers should enter quarantine for 14 days, the CDC recommends.
At the Barrett event, Pence was seated in front of Utah senator Mike Lee, who has tested positive, and across from Melania Trump and Conway.
Related: Europe struggles to contain surge of coronavirus cases
The Republicans’ heedlessness of virus mitigation efforts could endanger one of their most prized projects, the confirmation of Barrett, who is supposed to sit before the Senate judiciary committee next Monday. Both Lee and a second committee member who has tested positive, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, must work from home if they are able. A third senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, has also tested positive.