As the nation’s capital reeled with news of one high-profile presidential aide after another testing positive for COVID-19, officials in local health departments in several jurisdictions said the White House has complicated efforts to identify and contract trace anyone whom the president and his entourage may have exposed to the coronavirus during his recent travels.
Contact tracing, which involves identifying people who have tested positive and working with them to help them quarantine and identify anyone else they may have put at risk, is considered an essential public health measure to prevent the spread of disease. But Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose office oversees the DC Health Department, said Monday that her staff has made multiple attempts to communicate with the White House on contact tracing, but they “haven’t received a response.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the Mayor’s office said it was still calling on White House officials to further cooperate on contact tracing measures.
Many prominent DC residents, including former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior aide Hope Hicks, have made national headlines with the news that they have tested positive. Still, the DC mayor said earlier this week, healthcare providers are required by law to report positive cases to the DC Health Department — but the White House has not been cooperative.
Susie Welty, a contact tracing expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said the system is “definitely not working like it's supposed to” and that the breakdown in case reporting and contact tracing means the American people may “never know the full extent” of the White House outbreak.
“The responsible thing to do would have been to make sure that people who were traveling with the president, if they tested positive, that they gave that information to the local health authorities,” she continued. “It shouldn’t be on a state to reach out to get information like that. It should be forthcoming.”
Meanwhile, public health officials in neighboring states where many DC residents live have said they were keeping a close eye out for cases that may have originated at the White House, but have added that they can’t act without an official report.
“We are standing on guard with a careful eye about any cases reported to us to see if there’s any connection,” said Travis Gayles, the top health official for Montgomery County, Maryland, which adjoins DC. As of Wednesday, he said, he had not been notified about any positive cases by the White House.
Gayles said he didn’t know if this was because the White House had failed to contact trace and report lab results to local health authorities — or simply because there were no cases. “I am concerned it may be the former,” he told BuzzFeed News.
The Maryland Department of Health also said federal officials have not reached out about any positive cases. And while a spokesperson said that the department was “ready to assist if asked,” he added that there has been no discussion with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about contact tracing in the White House, even though the two agencies speak frequently.
Arlington County, Virginia — which is adjacent to the capital — said it had ceded all contact tracing efforts related to the White House to the state health department. The Virginia Department of Health said it is not yet aware of any positive cases in Virginia related to the White House.
Since the incubation period for the coronavirus is up to 14 days after exposure, it’s possible that more cases may appear in and around Washington, DC, and other places where President Donald Trump and his entourage traveled to campaign events in the days before he announced he had tested positive.
On Sept. 30, the day before he tested positive for the coronavirus, Trump gave a speech indoors before an audience of around 40 donors at the home of a Shorewood, Minnesota, businessperson. But Minnesota officials do not yet have any information about whether those attendees might have been exposed to the virus in order to contact trace them. The state hasn’t been given the names of the people who were at the event, and it hasn't been told of any White House staff members, besides the president, who may have been infectious while at the event.
“That would be a question for the White House,” the spokesperson said.
“We are at the point where any cases in Minnesota resulting from transmission from events associated with the president’s visit last week would just be beginning to have symptoms and show up as cases in our reporting system,” said Doug Schultz, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health.
In Bedminster, New Jersey, where Trump mingled with around 20 people indoors at an event at the Trump National Golf Club on Thursday hours before testing positive, officials did receive the names of attendees and golf club employees who were exposed to possible infection. But the Republican National Committee, which hosted the event, failed to provide phone numbers for some of those guests, according to CBS News, making it difficult for state officials to warn those present about exposure, though all attendees were eventually notified. About 200 people later joined an outdoor fundraiser.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he found the situation frustrating, calling the event “reckless” in a briefing on Monday.
“We just haven't had ... as robust a partnership as we want,” Murphy said of the federal government’s response to the possibility of coronavirus spread at the Trump National Golf Club event, which was attended by 206 people, many of whom are not New Jersey residents. “It's at a moment like that you need as robust a federal response as we have had at the state level.”
“We need more,” the governor continued. “We need to see more out of the federal side.”
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, where Trump participated in the presidential debate last week, told CNN he never heard from the White House regarding the president’s diagnosis.
A spokesperson said the White House “follows all CDC reporting requirements.”
“Any positive case is taken seriously as is the health and safety of everyone on the complex who works in support of the President,” the statement said. “Contact tracing has been conducted by the White House Medical Unit consistent with CDC guidelines and appropriate notifications and recommendations have been made.”
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, officials did not address whether they are reporting cases to local health departments.
Meanwhile, some residents in the DC area said they are shocked at what they perceive to be a cavalier attitude toward preventing further spread.
Jessica Pherigo, a mom of four children who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, watched in disbelief as unmasked Trump supporters crowded the streets around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this weekend when the president was there receiving treatment and cheered as he rode through the streets on Sunday afternoon. Despite the number of police officers, as well as a local mandate to wear masks, Pherigo said, she did not believe they were enforcing the rules.
“Those people were breaking the law. There were cops everywhere, and no one did anything,” said Pherigo.
The 37-year-old did not come into direct contact with the crowd of Trump supporters. She said she has taken quarantine measures seriously since March but still leaves her house to do errands in the Bethesda area. The lack of contact tracing efforts as more White House officials get sick and parade the streets has left her feeling frustrated and angry.
“Everyone in Montgomery County is pissed,” she said. “This is just a just a failure on a national, state, and local level.”
Tasneem Nashrulla contributed reporting to this story.