President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, on Monday revealed she was the latest top official in the White House’s Covid-19 cluster to test positive for the coronavirus. She said in a statement that she “will begin the quarantine process.”
But if McEnany had been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, she would have quarantined days ago — when she found out she was a close contact for Hope Hicks, an aide to Trump who had already tested positive.
McEnany isn’t the only person in the federal government setting a poor example, with Republican policymakers ranging from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to Attorney General Bill Barr to Vice President Mike Pence saying they won’t quarantine despite potential close contact with at least one person who tested positive for the coronavirus. They’ve pointed to their lack of symptoms or negative tests, defying the CDC’s guidelines to quarantine or self-isolate regardless.
Now Pence is out on the campaign trail, with the vice presidential debate still scheduled for Wednesday. McEnany briefed reporters without a mask this weekend, possibly exposing them to the virus, too.
Even Trump, who’s now hospitalized with Covid-19, hasn’t taken the quarantine and isolation recommendations very seriously. On Sunday, he had his motorcade drive him by supporters outside Walter Reed medical center, where he’s staying — likely exposing his staff, including Secret Service agents in the car with Trump, to his own illness.
As Trump, Pence, and McEnany fail to take precautions, they set a poor example for the rest of the country at a time, experts say, the US needs better, steadier leadership on how to overcome the coronavirus.
What the CDC’s testing and quarantining guidelines say
The CDC is very clear about this: If a person comes into close contact with someone known to have a coronavirus infection, defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, that person should get a test and quarantine for 14 days. The CDC says the person should self-isolate for the two full weeks even if they test negative and don’t develop symptoms.
The guidelines aren’t just out of an abundance of caution, but an acknowledgment of the reality with Covid-19. People can still spread the coronavirus without symptoms. And even if someone gets tested, tests can have significant rates of false negatives (with false positives possible but rare for some types of tests). So the agency encourages people to quarantine for the virus’s incubation period, regardless of test results or symptoms, to avoid spreading the disease further.
As the CDC cautions, “Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested. … A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test.”
McEnany, apparently, didn’t seem to think she had to quarantine as long as she tested negative for the coronavirus. She said she had tested negative “consistently, including every day since Thursday.” Other officials are making the same mistake.
Biden may not fall under the quarantine guidelines — but he’s still taking a risk
During the 2020 presidential campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, has made it a point to draw a contrast with the president and his administration on Covid-19. He’s emphasized the science, calling for Trump to heed the CDC’s recommendations. He’s consistently worn a mask and scaled back campaign events, aiming to set an example on social distancing.
But Biden is now taking a risky approach, too.
The CDC’s quarantine recommendation could be taken to extend to Biden, since he sparred verbally with Trump at an indoor debate for more than 90 minutes on Tuesday, while neither of them wore a mask.
Biden, however, has continued campaigning. His team argued he didn’t come into close contact with Trump because the two men remained more than 6 feet apart.
“Vice President Biden and the president were never within what the CDC considers to be close contact, and we are following CDC guidance. The vice president tested negative twice Friday, our traveling staff tested negative on Friday, the VP tested negative again Sunday, our campaign events are socially distanced and everyone is wearing a mask,” T.J. Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesperson, said in a statement. “Given all of those factors, we are comfortable that the vice president can continue to campaign safely.”
Still, this might be risky. The research on the coronavirus increasingly shows that 6 feet, while at least somewhat helpful and protective, isn’t a magical threshold, with airborne particles very likely able to carry the coronavirus even further. (The CDC on Monday acknowledged the possibility of longer-distance airborne transmission with an update to its “How COVID-19 Spreads” website.)
It’s this kind of uncertainty about the coronavirus that’s led some experts to call for even greater caution than the CDC’s guidelines recommend.
Biden is sticking to the specifics of the CDC’s recommendations. At the very least, that’s better than some officials in the Trump administration are now doing. But it’s not the best example that the former vice president could set.
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