WASHINGTON: The White House contact tracing programme is too haphazard to pinpoint or halt a COVID-19 outbreak that was rapidly spreading in the US capital city, health experts and city officials said on Tuesday (Oct 6).
Washington reported 105 new cases of the coronavirus for Oct 5, the mayor’s office said, the highest figure since June.
Elected officials who represent Washington and surrounding areas where many White House and other government workers live said they feared the outbreak connected to the Trump administration was “out of control”.
President Donald Trump disclosed on Friday that he and his wife, Melania, were infected, and the list of people who were in their proximity or at the White House in the days before the disclosure was still growing.
A presidential military aide and a military valet were the latest to test positive for the highly contagious disease.
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White House staff tests are not reported with the rest of the city’s results, and local officials are concerned staff and visitors could spread it to family and friends.
“We are alarmed and dismayed by the casual disregard for the health of our community, including constituents who work at the White House as staff, agents or officers of the United States Secret Service, journalists of the White House Correspondents Association, and the general public,” a group of Congressional Democrats who represent the city and nearby Maryland and Virginia said in a statement.
A White House event on Sep 26 for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was suspected of spreading infections, as was an Air Force One flight that evening with Trump.
But several staff members, guests and journalists at the event or on the flight told Reuters they have not been contacted by the White House medical team.
Ideally, anyone who was at the White House the weekend before Trump said he was infected should be quarantined, “especially in this case where there is a cluster emerging”, said Jeremy Konyndyk, from the Center for Global Development think tank, who previously led the US response to the Ebola outbreak.
Contact tracers should be identifying where the cluster of infected cases was at the White House, said Konyndyk, notifying anyone who was near them, and trying to pinpoint the “index case”, or person who likely spread the virus to everyone else.
Then they should go backward to follow that person’s movements over previous days, and notify people the spreader was with, he said.
Instead, some White House guests, visitors and reporters are taking matters into their own hands.
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Reverend Paul Scalia of the St James Catholic Church in suburban Virginia, who attended the Sep 26 ceremony at the Rose Garden, made arrangements for testing and quarantined as soon as he heard of the president’s condition on Friday.
“The lack of masks and social distancing at that event has become a legitimate cause of concern, especially since the President’s COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalisation,” Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said in a letter to his church. He said White House staff told him he could remove his mask after testing negative before the event.
Other politicians are going about life as usual.
Defying airline policy banning those who have been exposed, three Republican members of Congress from Minnesota – Representatives Pete Stauber, Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn – flew home from Washington on Friday despite having travelled with Trump to and from a rally in Duluth on Wednesday.
Aides to the three lawmakers, who had tested negative for coronavirus, did not respond to requests for comment about whether there had been any contact tracing.
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During a flight after the Sep 26 White House event, an unmasked Trump came back to the rear of the plane to speak to journalists, including a Reuters correspondent, standing just a few feet away.
New York Times correspondent Michael Shear, who was on the flight and later tested positive for the virus, told Axios his wife has also tested positive. “The collateral damage is going to be pretty significant, I think,” he said.
No one at the White House had reached out to him to trace his contacts despite his proximity to the president, he said.
Spokesman Judd Deere said the White House has a “robust contact tracing programme led by the White House Medical Unit with CDC integration”, and added it was “consistent with CDC guidelines”.
There is currently no regular testing and tracing regime in place for the more than 20,000 people who work in the dozen buildings that form the US Capitol complex.
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have resisted establishing one, at least partly because of the huge number of people involved, arguing that the 535 members of Congress should not cut ahead of others in more dire need of testing.
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