Until President Trump’s coronavirus infection, the White House strategy for keeping him and others in the administration safe was one of testing only.
The President was rarely seen engaging in two of the most effective and widely promoted public health measures, social distancing and wearing a mask, and many of those who surround him followed his lead.
For example, during the recent presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump not only mocked his Democratic rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask, his wife and grown children removed their masks after they were seated in the auditorium, in violation of the events rules. Testing, however, was apparently a strategy Trump could get behind, and so he and his staff were tested often — the President was said to be tested as often as once a day, possibly more, according to initial reports. But Trump himself admitted earlier this summer he wasn’t tested every day. And the White House has not said publicly when the last time the President tested negative before he developed symptoms and tested positive Thursday night.
Testing-only strategy a ‘complete failure’ Unlike mask-wearing, testing would not “send the wrong message” as Trump has said in the past, and one he reinforced when he pointedly took off his mask on the White House balcony after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Monday night. In light of recent developments — the President, the first lady and an ever-widening circle of White House staffers and associates becoming infected with the coronavirus — it’s fair to say the testing-only strategy did not work out well.
That outcome does not surprise public health experts.
“It’s a complete failure. It was just a matter of time,” said Dr. Rob Murphy, a professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University and executive director of the Institute for Global Health. “They’ve been playing Russian roulette all this time, and they got away with it, considering how [many] interactions they have with other people, how close they are with everybody, how they don’t socially distance and how they rarely ever wear masks. They got away with it for pretty long, but it’s not enough,” said Murphy. Dr. Jared Baeten, the vice dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health and a professor of global health, medicine and epidemiology, agreed.
Testing the President every day “doesn’t keep him any safer,” said Baeten, but it did allow doctors to start therapies on him quickly. “Testing is incredibly important but testing alone is not enough,” he said. “Testing yourself every day only lets you know early … really quickly after you’ve become infected. It doesn’t prevent you from becoming infected.”
Baeten said the purpose of testing, while very important, is not for preventing infection. It’s about containing infection, so it’s not transmitted to anybody else. In theory, frequent testing among the President and his staff should have allowed Trump’s infection to be caught early and contained, before he could potentially infect others.
But again, the testing-only strategy failed.
Thursday, before it was revealed Trump was infected, he flew to a private fundraiser in Bedminster, New Jersey, where all 206 attendees and the 19 staff members who worked the event, have now been asked to quarantine and are having their contacts traced. The New Jersey fundraiser occurred on the heels of a Wednesday night rally in Minnesota, during which Trump’s close adviser Hope Hicks started to feel sick. On the flight back to Washington with the President and other staffers, Hicks said she self-isolated. She later tested positive for the virus.
About the President’s trip to Bedminster, New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said, “It is clear that the President and his staff acted recklessly in the first place knowing they had been exposed to someone with a confirmed positive test.”