WH Amy Coney Barrett Event Had Cramped Indoor Receptions, Compounding 'Superspreader' Fears

Speculation that the nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on September 26 may have been the source of the coronavirus outbreak at the White House has been compounded by reports that the White House held an indoor reception afterwards where face masks were not required.

Pundits including Chris Cuomo on CNN have speculated that the coronavirus outbreak at the White House is linked with the nomination ceremony. Cuomo spent part of his Friday night episode addressing that many of those who have tested positive attended the event. And he was not alone.

"I was skeptical this morning that Hope Hicks was the original source of the virus. It now appears the event for the Supreme Court nominee is a more likely possibility. Several in attendance have tested positive and cameras show few wore masks or practiced basic social distancing!" Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, tweeted Friday.

"All they had to do is distance the chairs. They couldn't even do the bare minimum. People should be fired over this. People would be fired over this in a normal admin," Igor Bobic of the Huffington Post tweeted on Saturday, referring to the nomination ceremony.

While there were few masks seen at the ceremony, all the guests were tested for coronavirus before being allowed to attend. Though some fear the event was the catalyst for the current outbreak, the ceremony has not been publicly deemed a superspreader event, according to The Washington Post. The White House is working on contact tracing to determine if the event was the origin of the outbreak.

Scientists have criticized the White House for the way the ceremony had been handled.

"I find this to be one of the single most appalling things that has happened in the past few months," Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told Buzzfeed News. "I hope this serves as an important reminder that the virus doesn't discriminate, that you can catch it whoever you are, and it's a risk and it's real."

"One of the critical things to keep in mind here is that a lot of people are going to events with a lot of other people who may have the coronavirus," she added. "This is part of the reason why we don't recommend large gatherings in the middle of a pandemic."

Those who expect the nomination ceremony as the inciting event cite the delay between coronavirus infection and when symptoms start to appear—known as the "incubation period" of the virus. The incubation period can stretch as long as 14 days, however, the median length is 4-5 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was 5 days between the ceremony and when White House aide Hope Hicks first tested positive for COVID-19.

A day after Hicks tested positive, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump also tested positive for the virus. On Friday, the president was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment. Others at the event who tested positive for coronavirus include former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, as well as three journalists who covered the ceremony.

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President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Judge Amy Coney Barrett are seen walking to the White House Rose Garden for her nomination ceremony. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty

The CDC says that outdoor areas are safer than indoor spaces due to increased ventilation. While the nomination ceremony was held outside in the White House Rose Garden, a reception was held inside the White House as well, according to The Washington Post. Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, told the Post that guests were told they didn't need to wear face masks after testing negative. Jenkins has since tested positive for COVID-19. Over 150 people attended the ceremony, according to the Post.

It's not unheard of for large events to be held during the pandemic, some of which have led to large outbreaks. Perhaps the best-known "superspreader" event was a wedding in Millinocket, Maine last month. Though 65 people attended the wedding, over 175 infections have been linked to it, and seven people have died, according to The Washington Post.

"Super-spreader" events are the basis for most of the spread of COVID-19, according to a June 23 Scientific American article. Citing events like a February funeral in Albany Georgia that drew 100 attendees, the magazine reported that between 10 and 20 percent of positive cases could lead to 80 percent of the spread of the virus.

Update (10/3/2020, 10:00 p.m.): This article has been updated to include more information.