As COVID-19 Tears Through the White House, the Staff Bear the Brunt of the Pandemic

White House covid
A member of the White House cleaning staff sanitizes the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Donald Trump, several members of his staff, and three members of the press corps have recently tested positive for coronavirus. Win McNamee/Getty

When President Donald Trump ascended the White House south portico grand staircase after leaving Walter Reed Medical Center on Monday and removed his face mask, it would be easy for the casual observer to assume the still-COVID-19 contagious president was making a defiant, socially-distanced statement.

But watch more closely in the background, and there were numerous lower-level White House employees within close proximity. At one point, Trump appears to summon a photographer up closer to him. The White House relies on hundreds of such people operating quietly in the background—if they appear on TV, they remain unnamed and often unnoticed.

These are the people who have faced, and continue to face, the brunt of the risk as the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold in recent months while the White House has chosen to flout some health care guidelines, including the recommendation for people to wear masks, particularly indoors. According to health experts, masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from people who are infected to those who are not.

While occasionally encouraging the public to wear masks and even requiring them for some White House employees, Trump and his top allies have frequently appeared without such protections. Now, the pandemic has ripped through the White House, largely shutting down operations and creating serious concerns about the health and safety of those most vulnerable among its staff.

The ripple effect is still being felt through Washington, D.C., with at least one report of the spouse of a White House reporter being infected after he had tested positive. On Monday, the District reported its highest number of daily coronavirus cases since June.

After the president initially downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, as he later admitted, the Trump administration implemented what it described as a rigorous testing process. But the recent outbreak raises questions about the heavy dependence on less-reliable rapid tests that the White House relied upon.

White House staffers in the President's office, including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and many in the Vice President's office, have often appeared without masks, pointing to their regular testing as justification for the apparent flouting of established precautions.

McEnany and at least two of her press aides are among those who mingled throughout the cramped press offices without masks before confirming their positive tests.

There are more than 90 people who regularly work on the residence side of the White House, including housekeepers, butlers, ushers and grounds people. Additionally, more than 400 people work in the executive office of the president, according to the White House's most recent annual report filed with Congress.

Others who frequent the grounds and its often tight, confined spaces include guests, secret service workers and reporters, though the White House Correspondents' Association moved early in the pandemic to scale back the number of journalists reporting from the building, instead encouraging reporters to work from home.

The White House has not provided a complete tally of how many employees have tested positive for COVID-19, despite multiple requests from reporters. But based on reports, nearly two dozen people in Trump's orbit have tested positive, while more are awaiting test results.

At least 11 people who attended an event in the White House Rose Garden to introduce Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on September 26, including a reporter, have since tested positive. Photos from the event, which was elaborately decorated with flags, show several masked employees in the periphery, while the VIPs in attendance sat close together, with few wearing masks.

On Sunday, a White House spokeswoman defended how the White House is handling becoming a hotspot for the pandemic.

"When we had a previous positive case in the West Wing a few months ago, certain people who were potentially exposed versus second degree contact stayed home for the period," communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters. "We're wearing masks when we can't socially distance. We also go through routine cleanings of the building, just to make sure surfaces are covered."

Trump returned dramatically to the White House after three days at Walter Reed, still within the period of being contagious.

The White House on Tuesday released a statement further defending how the residence has been fighting against the virus, noting that it had adopted hospital-grade disinfection policies, had held coronavirus workshops for staff, "significantly reduced staff" and encouraged maximum teleworking.

"The Residence also installed additional sanitization and filtration systems throughout the Executive Mansion," the statement read.

After both Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive, the residence staff now wears full personal protective equipment, the release noted.