‘Safer sitting at home’: White House battles outbreak in its ranks

White House staff wear masks as they listen to Trump during a briefing in the Rose Garden yesterday. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: As US President Donald Trump moves to reopen the coronavirus-battered country, the White House is battling infections within its own ranks.

And stemming an outbreak of the highly-contagious virus is not an easy task in the famed West Wing.

Though it may appear spacious in movies and TV shows, the West Wing, where the president works out of the Oval Office, is actually rather cramped, making social distancing difficult.

In the past few days, a personal valet to Trump and the press secretary to Vice-President Mike Pence, head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, have tested positive for the virus.

Three members of the task force have gone into quarantine – infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration.

Trump on Monday, several hours ahead of a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, made no reference to the outbreak at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and claimed things were on the upswing.

“Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere,” Trump tweeted.

“Big progress being made!”

Trump, who is desperately seeking to reboot the country and economy ahead of the November presidential election, also fired off a series of tweets at one of his favourite targets – the media – and his predecessor Barack Obama.

The West Wing houses not just the president’s office but also those of some of his closest advisers, the press briefing room and the desks of White House correspondents, who work elbow to elbow.

‘Scary to go to work’

Kevin Hassett, a senior economic advisor to the president, told CBS over the weekend that it is “scary to go to work”.

“I would be safer sitting at home in my house than going into a West Wing that with even all the testing in the world and the best medical team on Earth, is a relatively crammed place,” Hassett told another network, CNN.

The coronavirus made its first known appearance among the president’s entourage a few days ago when Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive.

Miller is married to Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor to the president.

A member of the US military who serves as a personal valet to Trump also tested positive.

Trump and Pence, his designated successor, have been tested daily and the tests have been negative so far, according to the White House.

In a memo issued on Monday, the White House instructed all staff to wear a mask when inside the West Wing, except when at their desks.

Journalists who attend White House briefings already wear masks inside the building and have their temperature checked before entering.

Unlike a number of other world leaders, the 73-year-old Trump has not been wearing a mask in public, most recently during a visit to a factory in Arizona last week that makes personal protective gear.

Neither has Pence, who did not take part in a meeting at the White House with Trump and military leaders on Saturday but was at the White House on Monday.

Following press reports over the weekend that Pence was in quarantine, his spokesman Devin O’Malley said that was not true.

“Vice-President Pence will continue to follow the advice of the White House Medical Unit and is not in quarantine,” O’Malley said.

“Vice-President Pence has tested negative every single day.”

The US is the country the hardest-hit by the virus with more than 1.3 million infections and nearly 80,000 deaths.

And while the situation has improved in New York, epicentre of the US outbreak, progress has been slow elsewhere and the spread of the virus to the White House itself is a worrying development.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office rendered his judgment of the administration’s overall coronavirus response during a conference call with supporters which leaked last week.

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been an “absolute chaotic disaster”, Obama said.

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