COVID-19 is ripping through the White House again, as at least five aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive.
They include his chief of staff Marc Short, top outside advisor Marty Obst and three more unnamed staffers, per the New York Times.
Despite the wildfire spread and very real possibility that he could be infectious himself, Pence has refused to stop campaigning. The White House and Trump-Pence campaign have decided that their way around losing one of their principals to a pesky stint in quarantine just before the election is to call Pence an “essential worker,” a title previously reserved for those like first responders and health care workers whose critical jobs simply could not be done from home. Apparently, Pence’s political rallies now rate that same level of importance.
“It’s extremely irresponsible for the Vice President to refuse to heed CDC guidelines,” Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, told TPM.
The CDC advises normal workers, whether or not they test positive for the infection themselves, to stay home for 14 days after exposure. That’s due to the virus’ long incubation period, and the possibility that someone who has tested negative may be just days away from displaying symptoms and testing positive — possibly spreading the infection all the while. Per the White House, Pence tested negative Saturday, the day Short got his positive diagnosis, as well as Sunday.
The CDC’s essential workers guidance allows exposed people to return to their critical jobs as long as they are constantly masked (something Pence and the administration have long pooh-poohed), asymptomatic and keeping socially distanced as much as possible.
That exception, Wen said, is for people like doctors and nurses who, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans, have to come in to work. “Situations as in, there is so much coronavirus in the community that doctors and nurses are constantly exposed to people with the virus and you can’t say that none of these health care workers should work for 14 days after coming in once,” she said. “It just wouldn’t be feasible.”
And still, Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, added to TPM, those essential workers should also quarantine for a time, even if it’s a lesser five to seven days since the exposure.
Pence, of course, is not treating patients sick with a COVID-19 infection. He’s embarking on a string of campaign events to try to save his reelection effort a week out from Election Day. That included a Sunday rally in North Carolina, a stop in Minnesota on Monday and an event in South Carolina Tuesday.
“The fact that he’s trotting around the country and then rallying without a mask on, even if he’s ‘essential,’ that’s just so inappropriate in terms of the possible problems he might be posing to everyone who has to travel with him and everyone who comes in contact with him,” Hassig said. “It’s a great deal of casualness about the potential impact that this virus can have on people, and a kind of callous disregard for the impact their behavior has on others.”
It’s also a clear continuation of President Donald Trump’s attitude, even after being infected himself earlier this month.
“It baffles me that those who would dismiss science (and the evidence-based guidance it unearths) are so eager to benefit from it when it suits them,” Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, a former CDC epidemic intelligence service member and former head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, told TPM. “After his positive test with only mild symptoms, Trump happily consumed every treatment, experimental therapeutic, and compassionate use protocol to save himself.”
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien tried to cover Pence’s clear political calculus Sunday by claiming that “essential workers going out and campaigning and voting are about as essential as things we can do as Americans.”
“Essential personnel, whether it’s the Vice President of the United States or anyone else, has to continue on,” added White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in a CNN interview the same day, just before admitting that the administration is “not going to control the pandemic.”
Campaigning is not even an official part of Pence’s duties as Vice President, Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University law school, pointed out.
“Pence is not an essential worker,” Gostin told TPM. “He is a politician. Even if his work as Vice President was essential, he could do that work remotely.”
“Campaigning certainly is not essential work, and that is clear to the vast majority of Americans,” he added.
Wen agreed, calling Pence’s decision to campaign rather than conduct his official business from quarantine in the residence “irresponsible and reckless.”
“He’s also setting an example for his staff, who are very likely not abiding by the requirements of quarantine either,” she added.