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Hundreds gather at White House for Trump speech despite COVID-19 guidelines

Hundreds of people packed the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday for President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, flouting federal and local health guidance on the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 1,500 guests are expected to attend, a Trump campaign official said, with lawmakers, congressional candidates, administration officials and first responders among them. Seats were mere inches apart, and few guests were spotted wearing masks in the hours before Trump took the stage.

Trump administration officials have urged Americans to wear masks when it is not possible to maintain six feet of distance in order to avoid spreading COVID-19.

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Further adding to the potential risk from the gathering, the campaign would not say whether attendees were tested for COVID-19 before they arrived, instead referring to vague health protocols in place.

"Patronus Medical, a leading medical, safety, and health company, has worked in partnership with the Republican National Committee to make certain proper protocols are in place to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals at convention venues," the campaign said in a statement. 

Robert Darling, the chief medical officer at Patronus Medical, said health professionals were on site "to make certain screening has been done on a consistent basis to ensure the convention meets the highest standards of public safety."

The crowd also was in defiance of guidelines from Washington, D.C., that prohibit mass gatherings of more than 50 people. Visitors who come to the District from certain high-risk states are asked to quarantine for 14 days.

The massive gathering on the White House lawn comes after Trump canceled convention plans in Charlotte, N.C., complaining that he would not be able to hold a large celebration without masks or social distancing. 

The setup Thursday alarmed health experts, who warned of the potential for spreading the virus.

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"This is irresponsible. Yes it's outdoors. But these folks are together for an extended period of time without masks. It's utterly irresponsible," tweeted Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

"Political convention or illegal large pandemic-risky low-mask-use un-distanced public gathering?" tweeted Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at Harvard.

This week's Republican convention has largely treated the pandemic as an afterthought, frequently referring to it in the past tense, even as roughly 1,000 people in the U.S. die each day from the virus. The U.S. has by far the highest number of reported infections of any country in the world at 5.8 million.