President Donald Trump removes his mask as he stands on the Blue Room Balcony upon returning to the White House after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2.
President Donald Trump removes his mask as he stands on the Blue Room Balcony upon returning to the White House after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Trump administration discreetly warned a veterans group of potential COVID-19 exposure from a White House event five days before the president announced his positive diagnosis to the public. This is the first-known notice given to visitors of the White House, where more than 34 staffers have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Oct. 2, the same day President Donald Trump acknowledged his COVID-19 diagnosis, the White House quietly alerted members of the nonprofit group The Greatest Generation that they had been exposed to the coronavirus at an event five days earlier. 

The Gold Star Family event, held to celebrate fallen service members, was held indoors at the White House on Sept. 27. Photos from the event show minimal mask wearing and little social distancing. 

The White House Medical Unit, which is conducting contact tracing related to the current White House outbreak, has said it only alerts people who have come within six feet of a White House personnel member in the 48 hours preceding their positive test. The administration has not released the name of the staffer who may have been infected at the time of the veterans event. 

Complicating matters more, the White House public liaison’s office, not the medical unit, is running point on communications, urging guests to get tested in what an anonymous source called a “chaotic” attempt to manage the outbreak. 

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“The communication breakdown during this is even worse than usual,” the source told The Daily Beast. “Different departments and offices are not talking or communicating appropriately, people are doing different things, and officials are having trouble getting on the same page. The East Wing and the West Wing are dealing with this totally differently. It’s just a mess.”

Among the guests at the Gold Star event was the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Charles W. Ray. The Pentagon announced on Tuesday that he has tested positive for coronavirus. Ray met with several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders in the days since the event, and now those officials are self-quarantining as they await results. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were also at the event. As of Wednesday, General Gary Thomas—second in command in the Marines—had also tested positive. 

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Neither the Pentagon nor the Coast Guard would say if the White House notified Ray, Esper, Milley or any other senior military official of their potential exposure from the Sept. 27 event. In general, the White House has been loose with contact tracing. Nowhere is this more evident than the handling of the outbreak at the Rose Garden celebration for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, where at least 8 people including the president may have been infected. The White House has not traced guests and staff from the event, instead limiting itself to contacting those who came in close range of Trump two days before his diagnosis.

Barrett and her family dined at La Chaumiere, an upscale Georgetown restaurant, following the White House introduction ceremony. Despite the obvious risk to the public, “No contact tracer or anyone from the White House has reached out to me,” the owner told The Daily Beast.

It is looking increasingly likely that the Rose Garden event was a so-called super-spreader event. Such events allow the virus to spread exponentially as guests leave the original event and make contact with others, creating a web of transmission. The White House’s decision not to pinpoint the source of these outbreak clusters and advise guests to quarantine can bring disastrous consequences, experts say.

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The White House Medical Unit has been less than transparent on details surrounding its contact tracing program. White House officials have not revealed who they believe could be at risk nor have they released the number of personnel members being traced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the D.C. mayor’s office have offered to help coordinate the tracing program. They were rejected.

“This is a total abdication of responsibility by the Trump administration,” Dr. Joshua Barocas, a public health expert and contact tracing advisor at Boston University, told The Boston Globe. “The idea that we’re not involving the CDC to do contact tracing at this point seems like a massive public health threat.”