The White House gathering on Sept. 26 to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve on the Supreme Court has emerged as a likely superspreader event in the growing cluster of COVID-19 cases surrounding the president.
So far, the majority of the people who have tested positive were at the Rose Garden gathering and associated events, including individuals whose schedules would otherwise not obviously have brought them together. And the timing of their reported positive tests fits with the date of the event. It was also surrounded by other meetings with key Republicans to discuss the coming confirmation hearings.
Trump’s wife, Melania, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had prepped Trump for Tuesday’s debate, Kellyanne Conway, the former counselor to Trump who left the White House in late August, were at the event. So were Sens. Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider Barrett’s nomination, and Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, where she is a law professor. (Barrett herself was reportedly infected with the coronavirus earlier this year and tested negative on Friday.)
Far from shifting the narrative away from the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, as his supporters would have hoped, the event has turned into an emblem of the dangers posed by Trump’s practice of holding largely maskless gatherings without social distancing.
“I find this to be one of the single most appalling things that has happened in the past few months,” Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said of the spectacle of repeated Trump rallies and other gatherings with few precautions to reduce viral transmission. “I hope this serves as an important reminder that the virus doesn’t discriminate, that you can catch it whoever you are, and it’s a risk and it’s real.”
Photos and videos from the Supreme Court nomination event show attendees mingling and hugging. While Barrett was formally introduced, more than 150 people sat packed together in rows of chairs on the White House Rose Garden lawn, with very few wearing masks.
The Rose Garden event was accompanied by indoor gatherings where the risk of viral transmission is especially high. Before Barrett was introduced, Trump and at least eight others, including his wife, Christie, Lee, and Tillis, reportedly met with her inside the White House. The celebrations included a series of indoor receptions, the Washington Post reported.
Experts told BuzzFeed News that it may not be possible to uncover the exact chain of viral transmission within Trump’s circle — nor to determine how the president himself became infected. “There’s a ton of unknowns and it’s hard to figure out,” said Carl Bergstrom, a theoretical biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
But research has shown that some people are particularly likely to transmit the coronavirus. A study of clusters in Hong Kong published on Sept. 17, for instance, estimated that 19% of the people infected were responsible for 80% of local viral transmission. It only takes one of these “superspreaders” at an event like Barrett’s nomination to seed a series of cases.
“One of the critical things to keep in mind here is that a lot of people are going to events with a lot of other people who may have the coronavirus,” Grabowski said. “This is part of the reason why we don’t recommend large gatherings in the middle of a pandemic.”
Those who attended the Sept. 26 White House gathering were tested beforehand. The White House seems to rely on a rapid testing device developed by Abbott Laboratories that can deliver results within 15 minutes. But there’s a problem with using the Abbott test for screening in this way: It has only been authorized for use on patients showing symptoms and is thought to deliver a high number of false negatives. In one study published in July of tests ordered at New York University’s Langone Hospitals ER, it gave negative results in up to 45% of cases in which a rival test produced a positive result.
As more cases emerge, contact tracers will be racing to test all those who attended the Barrett event, encouraging them to self-isolate, and identifying their social contacts. “For people at the Rose Garden, I would want to see them tested and minimizing their contacts with other people in the interim,” Bergstrom said.
On Saturday, the president’s physician said “the White House medical unit in conjunction with, in collaboration with CDC and local state and health departments, are conducting all contact tracing per CDC guidelines.”
Those in close proximity to the president and his entourage throughout this time include members of the White House press corps, three of whom have so far tested positive for the coronavirus.