The Trump White House is now in the middle of its third Covid-19 outbreak. News broke over the weekend that chief of staff Mark Meadows, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and six other staffers tested positive for the novel coronavirus after attending a maskless election night party. In September, the Supreme Court nomination ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett — now labeled a superspreader event — brought down 35 people connected to the White House, including senators, staffers, and members of the press, not to mention President Trump and his immediate family. Additionally, there were reports of another outbreak within the orbit of Vice President Pence in October, with multiple staff members testing positive for Covid-19.
The administration’s publicized prevention strategy is to test every person who enters the White House every day using Covid-19 rapid tests. It’s unclear, however, whether the procedures have been carried out as planned. Frequent screening using rapid tests is proposed as one way out of this pandemic, but if that strategy has failed more than once in the most privileged environment with the explicit goal of protecting the most powerful people in the country, is there any hope for the rest of us?
It’s up for debate whether the failing at the White House is due to a problem with the tests, the way they are implemented, or a shortcoming with the strategy itself.
Daily rapid tests do provide a strong foundation of protection against an outbreak, experts say. However, testing shouldn’t be the only tactic used, forsaking other defenses like distancing and masks.
“It’s fairly obvious that what happened at the White House was the result of behaviors rather than a failure of testing. We would not advise people under the current knowledge of how Covid-19 is spread to gather in a crowded space without masks,” says Paul Sax, MD, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The principle is a good one […] testing frequently as a way of immediately identifying potential infections, and then isolating those people, and using that to snuff out any outbreaks before they arise.”