White House staff have been ordered to wear a mask or facial covering to enter the West Wing, as Donald Trump confronts cases of the coronavirus at the heart of his administration.
Two known cases of Covid-19 among employees in one of the most-protected complexes in America have sent three of the nation’s top medical experts into quarantine and vice president Mike Pence into self-isolation.
The scare comes with the White House this week emphasising to the American people the steps being taken to assure their safety — in hopes that will coax them to resume normal activities.
“This week – you’ll hear the @WhiteHouse talk about preparedness & confidence,” tweeted Alyssa Farah, the White House director of strategic communications.
“The Trump Admin is working around the clock to build our testing capacity, grow our PPE stockpiles, distribute therapeutics, & get $ to states to SAFELY reopen in a way Americans can have CONFIDENCE in.”
That message was undercut by the exposure of senior government officials to positive cases at the White House itself and new protective measures implemented to keep the president safe.
Staff will be allowed to remove face coverings if they sit at least 6ft apart from colleagues. Mr Trump himself is still not expected to wear a mask.
Mr Pence on Monday led the White House’s weekly call with governors from an isolated room after his press secretary tested positive on Friday.
Dr Deborah Birx and other staff participated as usual from the Situation Room, Mr Pence said, explaining the “slightly different circumstance”.
“We are taking the appropriate countermeasures to protect the president’s health,” he added. The White House is moving to daily testing of some staff members to detect the disease.
The stepped-up protective measures comes as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Robert Redfield, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, were all quarantining after exposure to the White House employee.
The three experts are scheduled to give evidence to a Senate panel on Tuesday on “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School”. They and committee chairman Lamar Alexander will participate remotely. Mr Alexander is quarantining after a staff member of his own tested positive for Covid-19.
The images of senior administration officials taking such precautions came as states sought to loosen economic restrictions put in place to mitigate the virus’s spread.
Mr Trump complained on Monday that Democratic governors were too slow in lifting restrictions in their states.
“The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails,” he tweeted. “The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!”
He is scheduled to travel to the state on Thursday, according to advisories from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Alongside Mr Trump’s encouragement to reopen, the administration moved on Monday to address significant death rates in nursing homes and other senior care facilities.
On the call with governors, Mr Pence and Dr Birx recommended that every occupant and employee be tested for Covid-19 in the next two weeks, with vigilant monitoring going forward, especially of staff.