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Contact Tracing For The White House Coronavirus Cluster Presents Challenges


Just one week ago today, the world woke to news that the president had tested positive for coronavirus. Now, his physician says he's safe to go out this weekend. That doctor's statement comes amid a drive to return to campaigns and debates, although based on the information that we have, it is possible the president is still contagious. The White House has not told us when or if he has tested negative. It is the latest way the world's most famous coronavirus patient has declined to follow safety standards that are recommended for everybody else.

NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Would you remind us what the guidelines are for how long someone who's infectious is supposed to take care of themselves?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says when it comes to mild cases, you're likely no longer infectious 10 days after you first experience some symptoms and at least 24 hours after your last fever. But that period is actually longer for people who had more severe illness - it's more like 20 days.

And the problem here is there just isn't a lot of information about the president's illness. The White House has refused to answer when he last tested negative before his diagnosis. And there's been conflicting information about how severe his case was. So public health experts worry that his doctors are ending the president's isolation too early, without a clear explanation of how he won't be putting others at risk.

INSKEEP: There's also the question of people who've already been put at risk, who were at events with the president, some of whom have already tested positive for coronavirus. What kind of contact tracing, if any, is the White House doing?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The White House has said that it is not contact tracing a key event - it was the Amy Coney Barrett nomination event on Saturday, September 26. And now the District of Columbia and health officials from nine neighboring jurisdictions have sent an open letter on this topic. They have said that if you worked at the White House in the past two weeks or attended that event or had contact with people who were there or attended the event, then you need to get tested. And it notes that this open call is happening because these officials understand there has, quote, "been limited contact tracing" performed to date and that there may be people out there who've been exposed.

INSKEEP: Wow. Does the District of Columbia government have any authority, given that this happened on federal property?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The short answer is no. So even though there are reports of an increase in coronavirus tests in D.C. and some high case numbers in recent days and folks are worried that these might be linked to the outbreak at the White House, the D.C. government cannot control what happens at the White House. And we know the mayor sent a letter to the White House earlier this week suggesting they coordinate. The D.C. health director apparently did make contact with White House staff. But now this open letter suggests that internal negotiations weren't satisfactory.

INSKEEP: What is the White House saying about what it's doing to contact trace, if anything?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the White House says it's working with CDC. CDC tells NPR there are two epidemiologists detailed to the White House but wouldn't say who they are or explain their roles. There are reports there was a team at CDC prepared to help with contact tracing that was not mobilized. And the Trump administration says that the event on September 26 was just too early - it was too long before the president's diagnosis to make it worth it, even though it seems to be clearly linked to this outbreak. And the White House medical unit is only tracing cases they identify, which makes it seem like they may be contact tracing only a small subset of people who might be exposed. So now, we have this open call from local health departments in the area, kind of like a contact tracing bat signal - if you worked at the White House or you were at the Rose Garden on September 26, you need to quarantine for 14 days and get tested.

INSKEEP: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.