WASHINGTON — The White House rapidly increased coronavirus testing for those around President Donald Trump and took other emergency measures Thursday after a staffer whose job potentially put him in close daily contact with the president had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The possible exposure marks the president’s closest known contact with an infected person since the early days of the U.S. response to the pandemic and raises the possibility of the virus spreading in the West Wing.
In a statement, the White House acknowledged the positive test result for a member of the U.S. military who works on the White House campus and added that both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have since tested negative.
The infected staffer is one of Trump’s personal valets, the military staff who sometimes serve meals and look after personal needs of the president. That would mean the president, Secret Service personnel and senior members of the White House staff could have had close or prolonged contact with the aide before the illness was diagnosed.
“I’ve had very little contact, personal contact, with this gentleman,” Trump said when asked about the valet.
“Know who he is, good person, but I’ve had very little contact, Mike has had very little contact with him. Mike tested, and I was tested, we were both tested,” Trump said, referring to Pence.
The president said testing of White House staff will now be done daily, rather than about once per workweek. Trump has recently touted the rising number of tests now belatedly being done in the United States, but has also routinely played down the importance of testing as a metric for how quickly the country can safely return to normal.
Trump was frustrated when told of the positive test, but many in his inner circle were also frustrated and began discussing Thursday how they could protect the president, according to aides, who along with other current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the details of internal deliberations over coronavirus testing. However, the president likes to meet with many people and is itching to travel more, these aides said.
Trump said he and Pence had tested negative on Wednesday, which was also the day the valet showed symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and had again tested negative on Thursday.
A test now might not register positive even if the president or vice president had contracted the virus. Reasons include the limitations of the rapid test used and that if they were infected, they might not yet have a large quantity of virus in the nose or back of the throat where a swab is used to collect a sample.
The valet’s positive test set off a scramble at the White House to test all staff and intensify protections around Trump, three people with knowledge of the response said Thursday.
Staffers held a series of meetings and discussions Thursday on what else could be done to protect the president, including broader use of face masks. One person familiar with those discussions said wider use of masks among staffers close to Trump is expected but will remain optional.
Relatively few staffers who interact frequently with the president wear masks. One who did, National Security Council deputy Matthew Pottinger, drew snickers from his colleagues, according to aides.
Trump has never worn a face mask in public during the pandemic and has said that to do so while performing his official duties would be unseemly. He was criticized by some Democrats for touring a mask production line on Tuesday while not wearing a mask.
“The president’s physician and White House Operations continue to work closely to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the President, first family and the entire White House Complex safe and healthy at all times,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement Thursday.
Deere said that “in addition to social distancing, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all work spaces” occurs, and that “every staff member in proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for COVID-19 as well as any guests.”
Two people familiar with the White House plans said the White House medical unit launched an aggressive testing schedule Thursday for many on the White House campus who are expected to come in contact with portions of the White House where Trump might be.
A raft of Secret Service agents were being tested, including members of the president’s and vice president’s detail, these people said. Also, they said, tests are being given to many uniformed division officers who take turns standing guard at posts inside the White House.
“They are demanding testing for everyone who comes into the president’s breathing space,” said one person briefed on the plans.
Another large group of staff will undergo testing Friday, and the medical unit is discussing recommendations for who should routinely wear masks, according to a former administration official familiar with the discussions.
Deere disputed the White House was expanding the universe of staff members who get tested for the virus.
Trump said Thursday that his valets do usually wear masks, although it is not clear whether the affected aide did so.
Junior staffers often wear masks, but senior-level officials who meet with Trump have generally not worn them, three White House officials said.
Several former White House personnel said they have asked previous colleagues still working at the White House why staff on the grounds, and especially those in proximity to Trump, were not automatically following a protocol of wearing masks and being regularly tested before this point.
“The president sees it as a sign of weakness to wear masks and so people just haven’t been doing it,” one current employee responded, according to a person familiar with that conversation.
Another former security official said that in the wake of the H1N1 avian bird flu outbreak in 2009, the White House developed a strategy for mask-wearing and regular testing in certain conditions to protect the president.
“It’s not like they don’t know how to do this,” the former official said. “I fear politics is influencing these decisions. More than 70,000 Americans have died. Are you going to wait until it’s 100,000?”
Sen. Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., a Trump confidant who spoke to the president on Wednesday night, said Trump did not mention any concerns about his personal situation or the employee who tested positive.
Another adviser who spoke to Trump earlier this week also said he did not voice any personal concerns.
The potential exposure comes as Trump is beginning to shift his emphasis from public health protections to ways the country can drop some of the limitations in place to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
The virus, to which people have no natural immunity, has killed more than 75,000 Americans as of Thursday. There is not yet a vaccine or a proven treatment available.
Trump has said he wants to see states move swiftly but safely to reopen schools, businesses and public spaces. He has begun leaving the White House after weeks of semi-lockdown, traveling last weekend to the presidential retreat at Camp David and on Tuesday to tour the Honeywell factory making medical masks in Arizona.
Reporters, governors and others who interact with Trump at the White House are either given temperature checks or rapid tests before coming near him. Staffers were receiving the rapid tests made by Abbott Labs about every five days.
That is a level of testing that is not available to the general public and only rarely outside a medical or first-responder setting.
Asked by a reporter Thursday how it was possible that someone who tested positive for COVID-19 could be so close to him, Trump said both that he is relying on testing and that the testing is not always reliable.
“Well, I think probably that has to do with the fact that we all believe in tests, we have the best tests in the world, but they were tested, I believe they’re tested on a weekly basis,” Trump said, referring to White House staff.
” … But they do the tests and it just shows you the fallacy — what I’ve been saying, testing is not a perfect art. No matter what you do, testing is not a perfect art.”
The rapid Abbott ID NOW test can return a result in 5 to 13 minutes, but there have been concerns about the accuracy of the results. Some medical centers have found that the rate of false negatives — people who test negative but are actually positive — are too great for the tests to be useful.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said Thursday that the Abbott ID Now machine has “about a 15 percent false negative rate.”
“If you’re in a circumstance where you really, really don’t want to miss a diagnosis of somebody who’s already carrying the virus, you’d like to have something that has a higher sensitivity than that. And I know they’re working on how to make that happen,” Collins said, according to CNN.
“It’s certainly one of the most exciting things we’ve got right now, but we think we could even do better,” Collins said in testimony before the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee.
Collins said there are about 18,000 of the machines in use.
Abbott said in a statement that Collins was referring to a study that occurred before instructions on how to transport swabs were changed, to address the problem.
“So we test once a week. Now we’re going to go testing once a day, but even when you test once a day, somebody could — something happens where they catch something,” Trump said Thursday.
He seemed to shrug off the risks of both the virus itself and the reliance on imperfect testing, saying as he has several times recently that the pandemic makes all Americans “warriors.”
“It’s a little bit strange but it’s one of those things. As I said, you know, I said yesterday, governor, all people are warriors in this country,” Trump said as he sat in the Oval Office with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, the latest in a string of governors invited to the White House to discuss their plans to reopen portions of their economies.
“Right now, we’re all warriors. You’re warriors, we’re warriors, you could be with somebody, everything’s fine and then something happens to the other person and all of a sudden, test positive,” he said.
Trump is concerned that the high unemployment and other economic shock waves from the pandemic will spoil his reelection chances, and is encouraging the lifting of health restrictions over the advice of his White House coronavirus task force.
More than 40 states are engaged in or plan some kind of reopening, although none yet meet the federal government’s core recommendation of a two-week decline in reported virus cases.
Shortly after Trump’s meeting with the Texas governor, his reelection campaign issued a statement praising Trump’s coronavirus leadership and hailing jobs created in Texas under Trump “before the economy was artificially interrupted.”
“There is no doubt that the economy led by the president defied all expectations and projections — he truly is the ‘Jobs President’ and is best suited to restore our economy,” the statement said.
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The Washington Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.