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Mike Pence should quarantine, not debate

Pence shouldn’t be onstage, but his absence would contradict Trump’s campaign message.

Amy Coney Barrett and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the US Capitol building.
Vice President Mike Pence attended the event celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on September 29, 2020.
Erin SchaffGetty Images

Vice President Mike Pence will debate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on Wednesday. But if Pence followed the recommendations of experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he would very likely be quarantining — not debating on Wednesday night.

The CDC guidelines are clear: If a person comes into close contact with someone known to have a coronavirus infection, defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, that person should get a test and quarantine for 14 days. The CDC says the person should self-isolate for the two full weeks even if they test negative and don’t develop symptoms.

The guidelines aren’t just out of an abundance of caution, but an acknowledgment of the reality of Covid-19. Asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus. And even if someone gets tested, tests can have significant rates of false negatives (with false positives possible, but rare for some types of tests). So the agency encourages people to quarantine for the virus’s incubation period, regardless of test results or symptoms, to avoid spreading the disease further.

As the CDC cautions, “Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested. … A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test.”

Given that so much of the White House, from President Donald Trump to a presidential valet, is now infected, and that Pence attended an event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that may have been a superspreading event, it’s hard to believe that Pence doesn’t meet the CDC’s standard here.

Pence’s staff notes that he has tested negative repeatedly, even though that’s irrelevant, according to the CDC, for a quarantine determination. His staff also argues that Pence doesn’t meet the technical definition of coming into “close contact” with someone who has Covid-19 because the CDC defines the required time frame as only going back to the “48 hours before the individual became symptomatic.” According to his staff, Pence was never in close contact with anyone known to have Covid-19 who showed symptoms or was in that presymptomatic time frame.

It’s hard to dispute any of this, since it would require somehow going back through Pence’s every contact and making sure he was within 6 feet of someone with Covid-19 — in that 48-hour time frame or after — for at least 15 minutes.

Yet it’s also very hard to believe that Pence didn’t meet this definition, given the scale of the Covid-19 outbreak at the White House.

At the very least, one would think that if Pence and the Trump administration had learned anything from the president getting infected, it’s that it’s better to not take an unnecessary risk. Maybe play it safe with the health of some of the most powerful people in the world — whether it’s the vice president or the person who could become the next vice president. Not to mention the other people involved in Pence’s travel to and presence at Wednesday’s debate.

But that would entail doing the one thing the Trump administration absolutely doesn’t want to do: admitting that the coronavirus is still with us and a constant threat. From the start of the pandemic, everything that Trump and his administration have done has aimed at downplaying Covid-19 — to get Americans to think that things are fine and normal, that the White House hasn’t botched its response, and that it’s okay to give Trump another term.

This is why Pence won’t cancel or delay the vice presidential debate in order to quarantine. It’s why his team fought against putting up plexiglass barriers at the debate. It’s why Trump tweeted as he was literally hospitalized with Covid-19, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” It’s why, back in March, Trump told journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down.”

Trump and Pence’s reelection campaign is now built around this message. So they’ll do everything in their power to avoid contradicting it, even if that means ignoring public health guidelines from their own government.