Tracing the close contacts of people known to be infected with Covid-19 is a basic strategy in the fight against the pandemic — something that’s supposed to be a given, and has helped countries like Germany and South Korea gradually open up again.
But after President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, the White House and his administration don’t seem to have done much, if any, contact tracing for the Covid-19 cluster surrounding the president.
According to Abigail Abrams and Lissandra Villa at Time magazine, local and state officials in places Trump recently visited haven’t heard from the White House about contact tracing. Michael Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus reported for the Wall Street Journal that Trump even told at least one adviser not to disclose a positive coronavirus test — which would make contact tracing efforts difficult, if not impossible.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Trump reportedly said.
Instead of contact tracing the many people Trump and his staff have come into contact with in the previous week of campaign events and the president’s travel throughout at least five states, the efforts seem to be contained to some White House staff who interacted with Trump, according to Time and CNN.
Even some high-profile officials seem to have been left out. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the first presidential debate, said he only learned about the positive tests at the White House from news reports. He tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend.
It’s possible that the White House Medical Unit, which is supposedly leading contact tracing efforts in the outbreak, is still scaling up for the task. The White House is now a coronavirus cluster, with multiple Republican senators and officials infected after they closely interacted with Trump and his staff, particularly at an event for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
But speed is key to contact tracing.
The idea behind contact tracing is to reach out to anyone who may have come into close contact with someone known to be infected with Covid-19. Those close contacts are then asked to get tested and quarantine to avoid spreading the coronavirus themselves. But the longer they’re not contacted, the longer they might continue their lives as normal, possibly infecting others unknowingly. So days, or even hours, really matter.
One problem: The outbreak may now be too large for the White House Medical Unit to do contact tracing on its own. As an anonymous source told CNN, “The White House Medical Unit, with a staff of under 30 people, has been stretched during the coronavirus pandemic conducting the extensive testing at the White House and at events Trump is attending.” The White House reportedly had not engaged a full team of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracers in its efforts as of Sunday.
Meanwhile, Trump and his administration, including his doctors, have tried to downplay his illness. They’ve resisted explaining the president’s condition — including his high fever and low oxygen levels — until pushed for days. Trump’s doctors over the weekend claimed they were trying to be “upbeat” as they resisted fully answering questions about Trump’s health.
The act of downplaying Covid-19, down to Trump’s illness and the White House outbreak he helped cause, is out of the same playbook Trump has used on the coronavirus from the first day: It’s part of an attempt to make everything seem normal, as if people aren’t being killed and sickened by the disease, in order to boost the president’s reelection chances. As Trump told journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down.”
That’s why Trump demanded states open up too early — to “LIBERATE” themselves — even as experts advised against it. It’s why Trump pushed for less testing, even as experts said more testing, along with widespread contact tracing, is needed to contain the pandemic. It’s why Trump mocked masks and often refused to wear one in public, even as experts and more research show masks are key to stopping Covid-19.
Now America leads the world in total Covid-19 deaths with nearly 210,000 dead, and the US is among the top four developed nations for coronavirus deaths per capita. As Trump lived his denial — attending ill-advised rallies and refusing to wear a mask — he exposed himself to the risk of the coronavirus again and again, eventually contracting it himself.
Trump and his staff, at least, have a chance to prevent their mess from spreading further. But so far, it doesn’t seem as though they’re taking that opportunity seriously, as days go by without a serious contact tracing operation.