WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump and his White House created for themselves a sense of invulnerability based on a flawed coronavirus testing scheme doomed to failure, which has now made the building a disease hot spot.
Instead of using a test with an effective 10% to 20% “false negative” rate as a screening tool, as it was designed, epidemiology and public health experts said, the White House used it as the sole means of determining whether employees and visitors alike were coronavirus-free ― and rejected other measures, such as masks and social distancing.
“They tried to test their way out of COVID, and you can’t do that,” said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “They were looking for a magical way out, a magic wand.”
That the plan could not work was obvious to him and his colleagues in the field from the start, Schaffner said, but it became obvious to the world in the aftermath of a large gathering at the White House on Sept. 26 to celebrate a Supreme Court nomination. Photographs from the event show indoor receptions with few face masks and no attempts at social distancing. Numerous attendees have now tested positive for the virus, including Trump himself, first lady Melania Trump, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a pair of Republican senators.
“Using a rapid test is appropriate for screening, certainly. But it doesn’t grant license to then ignore all other precautions. It’s helpful, not foolproof,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked in the Obama administration on the response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. “It needed to be part of a comprehensive strategy. The White House seems to have used it as a substitute for one.”
One former Trump administration official agreed that the fact that the most protected human on the planet contracted COVID-19 anyway is proof that the system did not work.
“The man got ill. That means that someone got too close to him, with or without a mask…. Something broke down. Something failed,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The former official then acknowledged that that “something” was likely Trump’s own failure to understand the limits of the protection that the testing provided.
“He has equated having been tested as not being a carrier,” the former official said.
Trump offered that logic during a Sept. 16 news conference in one of his many explanations of why he almost never wore a face mask. “We get tested. I’m tested. I have people tested. When people come into the Oval Office, it’s like a big deal. No matter who they are ― if they’re heads of countries, they all get tested. So I’m in sort of a different position.”
Trump was referring to the protocol the White House implemented this spring that anyone coming into contact with Trump had to have a negative result from an Abbott Laboratories 15-minute test for the coronavirus. Whether it was West Wing staff members or reporters in the pooled coverage or crew on Air Force One or donors at his fundraisers paying to get photos taken with him, all would have to undergo a test that involved gathering mucous from their nostrils to search for evidence of the virus.
The only problem: The test is a not foolproof indicator of whether someone is contagious. Though the manufacturer lists an accuracy rate of over 90%, the test cannot, by its nature, show a positive result until there is enough virus in the body to measure.
Someone who has been exposed to the virus could be contagious for as long as one to two days before a test will return a positive result, said Eric Feigl-Ding, a public health researcher with the Federation of American Scientists.
He likened it to securing the White House physically with a fence but with no other measures, such as guard dogs or Secret Service agents.
“Once you’re over the fence, you don’t need to wear a mask,” he said, meaning that people who might have been infectious but had not yet tested positive were free to interact with staff or Trump himself with the presumption that they could not spread the disease. “If your job is to guard the White House, you have a single-layer defense that is semi-porous.”
Trump, who, during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta this spring, claimed to have a full understanding of medical issues, appeared not to grasp the implications of how a person could test negative one day but positive the next.
“This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great,” Trump said during a May White House meeting with Republican members of Congress, discussing press aide Katie Miller, who had recently contracted COVID-19. “The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test — where it’s good, and then something happens, and all of a sudden — she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive.”
Trump himself, meanwhile, appears to have been lax about his own testing. On July 21, McEnany claimed that Trump did not need to wear a mask, explaining: “The president is the most tested man in America. He’s tested more than anyone, multiple times a day.”
But Trump contradicted her later that day in his own news conference. “I do take probably, on average, a test every two days, three days. I don’t know of any time I’ve taken two tests in one day.”
The White House has refused to disclose the dates and results of Trump’s COVID-19 tests over the past week or reveal how frequently he has been receiving them. “The president is tested regularly,” a senior official said on condition of anonymity.
This means Trump may have been spreading the virus to others for some days before he admitted he had contracted COVID-19 ― a period that included the White House event to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26, his debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden on Sept. 29, his attendance at an indoor fundraiser in a wealthy Minneapolis suburb on Sept. 30 and his hosting of another fundraiser at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Oct. 1.
“Selfishness and irresponsibility are the defining characteristics of Donald Trump’s overall pandemic response, so it’s no surprise that he’s treating the current White House outbreak the same way,” said Josh Schwerin, with the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “Trump is intentionally putting the people around him in harm’s way while still spewing disinformation that endangers millions more. It is irrefutable that Trump has made this pandemic significantly worse.”
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