President Donald Trump’s chief of staff has defended a decision by Vice President Mike Pence to continue an aggressive campaign schedule even after Pence’s closest aide tested positive for COVID-19.
The decision to stay on the campaign trail, which was announced hours after the White House on Saturday said Pence’s Chief of Staff Marc Short tested positive for the virus, has been derided by public health experts.
At least four other people in Pence’s orbit have also tested positive, according to reports in United States media.
A spokesman for Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force since late February, said he will continue to campaign with just nine days until the November 3 election because he is considered “essential personnel”. That exempts the vice president from quarantining, despite being a “close contact” to someone who has been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, the spokesman said.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, defended that assertion on Sunday, saying Pence is “not just campaigning, he’s working” during the last leg of the presidential contest.
Trump and Pence have multiple daily campaign events scheduled as part of a battleground-state blitz they hope will close the gap in polls with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Meadows said Pence will wear a mask while campaigning, except for when he speaks at rallies.
“He’s wearing a mask as it relates to this particular thing because the doctors have advised him to do that,” he said during the interview.
At least two of @Mike_Pence’s close advisors, including his Chief of Staff, have tested positive for #covid19, yet he intends to keep traveling & interacting with others. He should be in quarantine. How can we ask our patients to follow public health guidelines when @VP won’t? https://t.co/3X8rKQnSxm
— Leana Wen, M.D. (@DrLeanaWen) October 25, 2020
Meadows also appeared to confirm a New York Times report that he had sought to prevent details of the infection from going public. When asked about the report, he said: “Sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do, unless it’s the vice president or the president, or someone that’s very close to them where there is people in harm’s way.”
Pence, who held in-person rallies in Florida on Saturday, most recently tested negative on Sunday morning, hours before he was set to host a campaign event in North Carolina. Trump had tested positive for the virus on October 2 but was later cleared to return to campaigning after being briefly hospitalised.
The decision to continue campaigning has been widely criticised by public health experts.
Dr Ali Nouri, a molecular biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists, noted that Pence’s “negative test does not mean he is virus-free”.
“Even gold standard PCR tests don’t detect the virus in early stages when levels are low,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Pence shouldn’t be anywhere in the next 13 days without a mask.
There is no “campaign rally” exception for droplet spread. https://t.co/JGbipLoGNH
— Dara Kass, MD (@darakass) October 25, 2020
Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at George Mason University, in an interview with The Associated Press news agency, called the decision “grossly negligent”.
“It’s just an insult to everybody who has been working in public health and public health response,” she said. “I also find it really harmful and disrespectful to the people going to the rally” and the people on Pence’s own staff who will accompany him.
VP Pence's Negative test does NOT mean he is virus-free. Even gold standard PCR tests don't detect the virus in early stages when levels are low
— Dr. Ali Nouri (@AliNouriPhD) October 25, 2020
“He needs to be staying home 14 days,” she added. “Campaign events are not essential.”
Meanwhile, Dr Leana Wen, a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and the former health commissioner of Baltimore, said Pence’s decision sets a bad example for a country grappling with a new surge in cases.
The US has reported more than 83,000 new infections two days in a row, breaking its daily record for new cases on Friday. More than 224,000 people have died in the country from COVID-19.
“How can we ask our patients to follow public health guidelines when [Pence] won’t?” she wrote.
The plan for Pence largely underscores the cavalier approach to the coronavirus the Trump campaign has taken throughout the election season, even after the president, his wife and son tested positive.
The president has continued to host rallies with little social distancing and with some congregants not wearing masks. He has used his own experience, and the fact that his teenage son, Barron, was asymptomatic, to portray the pandemic as overblown by Democrats and the media.
As recently as Saturday, the president suggested the US might already have a vaccine if it were not for “politics”, renewing unfounded allegations that actors inside government agencies have been working to slow the development of an inoculant to hurt his chances at re-election.
That, despite public health experts repeatedly stressing that even the most ambitious timelines would not produce a safe vaccine before election day.
In an interview on Sunday, the White House’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci said it would be clear whether a government-supported COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective by early December, but more widespread vaccination would not be likely until later in 2021.
“We will know whether a vaccine is safe and effective by the end of November, the beginning of December,” Fauci told the BBC.
“When you talk about vaccinating a substantial proportion of the population, so that you can have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak, that very likely will not be until the second or third quarter of the year.”