Story at a glance

  • President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, placing his staff and others he’s come into contact with in danger of infection and transmission.
  • Irwin Redlener implores White House staff to use masks and social distance.

Following President Trump and first lady Melania Trump’s positive coronavirus diagnoses revealed early Friday morning, questions surrounding the political and public health implications have abound. 

One of the critical tasks that the administration must undertake now is painstaking contact tracing efforts, according to pediatrician and director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University, Irwin Redlener. 

Redlener estimates that with the earlier positive diagnosis of longtime Trump adviser Hope Hicks, the virus likely incubated in Hicks in mid-September. Given the large swaths of people in the president’s entourage, they, as well as their families and tangential contacts, need to be notified that they may have been exposed. 


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“We have a couple weeks of potential contact tracing that has to be done, which is an enormous task here,” Redlener told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt. He also noted that the transmission could have spread further given Trump’s lax adoption of public health protocols recommended to prevent the virus spread.

“The White House is filled with people who, like the president, have rejected the fundamental notions of how one protects themselves [against the coronavirus],” he said. 

In addition to the threat of widespread transmission within and outside of the White House, Trump himself is in a high risk category, Redlener said, given his advanced age and obesity. 

“I think it’s fair to say that everybody, all my colleagues at NBC and in the medical field and public health, want the president not to have symptoms, want him to recover rapidly and the same goes for everybody else there,” Redlener expressed. “But the fact of the matter is that he is ... an older person, he’s well within the age range for having risk factors that are serious and plus the presence of obesity, which he also has as a statement of fact, gives him a double risk and that’s the kind of thing that lands people of his age in the hospital.”

He further advised that to prevent any more infection within the Trump White House, there should be widespread adoption of masks and social distancing. 

“Get rid of this notion that masks don’t work,” Redlener advised. “Masks do work, and a mask and social separation are the only tools that we have” in addition to hand hygiene.”

The wearing of masks has been firmly politicized throughout the pandemic, with Trump frequently seen without a mask in close-contact public situations. Public health experts like Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, have said that the partisanship of public health protocols is a symptom of a divisive political state.

“When I'm telling you wear a mask, keep social distancing, avoid crowds, wash your hands, do things outdoors more than indoors. There's nothing political about that,” Fauci told Trevor Noah in September. “That’s a public health message that we know works.”

As for the broader reverberations of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the future of the next presidential debate is in jeopardy. 

Redlener says that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formally state that the virus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets from people within 6 feet, there is data pointing to the coronavirus being aerosolized, or carried on air.

If this is proved true, 6 feet may not be enough to prevent transmission, placing people in Trump’s vicinity, such as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, at risk for infection. 

“This is, as far as I am concerned, the end of political debates in 2020 that are in-person,” Redlener said. 


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Published on Oct 02, 2020