/Super spreader events? Trump and Hicks may have exposed dozens of others to COVID-19 in recent days

Super spreader events? Trump and Hicks may have exposed dozens of others to COVID-19 in recent days

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his adviser Hope Hicks have been in close contact with dozens – if not hundreds – of other people while potentially infectious with COVID-19, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

“There’s probably several super spreader events mixed up in this one scenario,” said Susie Welty, a contact tracing expert and technical director of surveillance at the University of California, San Francisco.

Welty said the number of people Trump and Hicks exposed to the virus could have expanded well beyond the circle of close contacts. The pair attended several events over the past week drawing thousands of people. The list includes his top advisers, his campaign donors, his Democratic rival Joe Biden, and scores of his supporters.

President Donald Trump tosses a hat to supporters as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally at Duluth International Airport, Sept. 30, 2020, in Duluth, Minn.

Biden tested negative for the virus on Friday, as did several other people who have been in contact with Trump or Hicks, such as Vice President Mike Pence. But Welty and other experts noted that the incubation period for the virus is up to 14 days, so those negative results do not mean they are in the clear.  

“To really be out of the out of the woods, we want to continue seeing” negative results for 14 days after exposure to the virus, said Michael Mina, a Harvard University physician and epidemiologist. He said the vast majority of individuals will have a positive test results within five to seven days.

It may be impossible to determine exactly how many people Hicks and Trump exposed before they received their positive test results this week. It’s not even clear right now if Hicks infected Trump – or vice versa. It’s also possible they were infected by a third person.  

So far, at least four other people who have come in contact with Trump in recent days have tested positive for COVID-19, including first lady Melania Trump, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and the Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University.

Three of those four people attended a White House event Saturday at which Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Videos and photos of that event, which was held outside in the Rose Garden, show more than 180  people in attendance, with only about 50 wearing masks and few  practicing social distancing.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett walks to the microphone after President Donald Trump, right, announced Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.

In one video, Lee, who disclosed his positive test result on Friday, is seen hugging at least two other attendees, and other images show guests shaking hands and chatting in close proximity. Lee appears to have been seated directly behind Pence at the event.

Welty said it may have been “inevitable” that Trump and others in his inner circle became infected “because they were relying solely on testing to keep them safe” and shunning other tools – such as masks and distancing – that can prevent infection. 

“It’s too late once you test positive,” she said. By that time, “you’ve already been around too many people and spread it to too many people.”

Mina said Hicks and Trump are perfect “index cases” for spreading the virus because “they have really large networks and they are often amongst large crowds.”  

The White House declined to provide a list of Hicks’ recent contacts. But Hicks reportedly began feeling ill on Sept. 30, after traveling with the president and other White House officials on Marine One to a fundraiser and rally in Minnesota. Hicks tested positive the next day, on Oct. 1. Trump disclosed that he had tested positive just before 1 a.m. on Oct. 2. The White House says he has mild symptoms.

In this Sept. 14, file photo, Hope Hicks, left, is seated across President Donald Trump inside Marine One as it lands on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. Hicks, Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Welty said Hicks and Trump were probably infectious for about 48 hours before their positive tests. At least 24 people traveled with Hicks or Trump on the president’s plane from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 – from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to Alice Marie Johnson, a prison reform advocate whose life sentence was commuted by Trump.

Over the last several days, Trump has attended at least four major events where he could have transmitted the virus to many others.

On Tuesday, Trump traveled to Ohio for the presidential debate with Biden. Although the two men stood far apart on the stage and did not shake hands, “they were in a closed space yelling at each other” for at least 90 minutes, noted Welty.

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrive for the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland.

Rules for that event mandated that everyone in the audience wear masks, but many in Trump entourage refused. “Anyone in that conference hall, quite honestly, could have been exposed,” said Welty. 

On Wednesday – the same day Hicks reportedly began feeling ill – she and Trump traveled with others to Minnesota for a fundraiser and campaign rally.

More than 50 people reportedly attended the fundraiser on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Minn. The private event, which cost $200,000 to attend, was at the home of Marty Davis, owner of Cambria Surfaces, a quartz countertop producer. Attendees included top Republican National Committee officials and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose spokesperson said she was not in close contact with Trump at the fundraiser. 

An RNC spokesperson said the venue was professionally sanitized, and attendees were socially distanced, but local CBS affiliate WCCO reported there was neither social distancing nor masks at the event.

Trump’s campaign rally was held outdoors at Duluth International Airport. Images from the event show hundreds of people crowded together, but seated relatively far from Trump as he delivered a 46-minute speech. Again, few people were wearing masks. 

Mike Lindell, the founder and CEO of My Pillow, spoke at the rally but his spokesman said he was not in close contact with the president and has tested negative for COVID-19.

Counselor to the President Hope Hicks walks from Marine One to accompany President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One as he departs Sept. 30, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

On Thursday, Trump traveled to New Jersey for a roundtable with supporters and a fundraiser at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. 

The president held an outdoor question-and-answer session with supporters, as well as a more intimate indoor session. One attendee, Patti Schechter, wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post that Trump took questions from “20 feet front and center” while outdoors, though pictures from those indoors show attendees spaced closer together. 

One donor and attendee, Rich Roberts, a doctor, told the Ashbury Park Press he and more than a dozen others met with Trump for about an hour. 

“I’m a medical doctor, if we see things that are abnormal, our eyes and our ears go there,” Roberts said. “For the entire hour he did not cough once, he did not sneeze once, he didn’t clear his throat once, he didn’t use a tissue, his eyes were not watering.”

Another donor, John Sette, told the newspaper he thought there were about 300 people in attendance at the outdoor event, where Trump spoke for 15 minutes and then took questions for an hour. 

Sette said he was not near the president. “I’m assuming I’m fine,” he said. 

Asked Friday why Trump went to Bedminster after Hicks tested positive, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters: “It was deemed safe.”

McEnany also was in close proximity to Trump in recent days, including at the Rose Garden event for Comey’s nomination.

On Friday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, urged all those who attended Trump’s events to “take full precautions” like “self-quarantining and getting tested.”

Mina said because the news of Trump’s positive test has been broadcast across the country, there’s little need to do the actual leg work of contracting tracing. The main goal of that, he noted, is to alert people that they may have come in contact with someone who is infected.

(L-R) White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Attorney General William Barr and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway talk in the Rose Garden after President Donald Trump introduced 7th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, as his nominee to the Supreme Court at the White House Sept. 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Anyone who attended events with Trump in recent days should quarantine for 14 days and consider getting tested, he said. 

It should also be a “reality check” for the White House. 

“The rallies should not be happening,” he said. “As far as I can tell, it’s just to stroke the president’s ego … (but) he is effectively putting hundreds or thousands of people at risk of getting this virus.”

Contributing: John Fritze and David Jackson