WASHINGTON – The White House on Monday ordered all West Wing employees to wear masks at work unless they sat at their desks, a sudden change in policy after two aides working near the president – a military servant and Katie Miller, vice presidential spokesman – tested positive for coronavirus last week.
In an internal e-mail obtained by The New York Times, people who work in narrow spaces around the Oval Office were told that “as an additional layer of protection, we require everyone who enters the West Wing to wear a mask or facepiece. “
Asked at a Rose Garden press conference whether he had ordered a change, Mr. Trump – who was not wearing a mask and repeatedly said he saw no reason to – said, “Yes, I do.” But officials say the new conditions are not expected to apply to Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.
White House officials have been scrambling since a positive diagnosis last week to keep the virus from spreading on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue even when the president, Mr. Pence and many other senior administrative advisers who might have been in contact with Ms. Miller and the waiter refuse to do the quarantine themselves. Trump said on Monday that he and Mr Pence had tested negative for the virus.
Three high-level public health officials have chosen to remain isolated for a certain period of time – Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
During the afternoon press conference Trump, senior White House aides can be seen standing alongside Rose Garden – all wearing masks.
The White House also made a number of small changes, including displaying signs that encourage social distance at the entrance and asking helpers during routine temperature checks if they experience symptoms, according to officials. The Monday e-mail said that West Wing staff members “are not required to wear face covers while at their desks if they are socially appropriate distance from their colleagues.”
Many of the president’s aides and chief advisers have avoided masks in their appearances with Mr. Trump, despite their own advice to their staff to use them. On Saturday, defense secretary Mark T. Esper and top military chiefs sat barefoot around the table with Mr. Trump in the White House, apparently in contradiction to the policy at the Pentagon, where officials kept social distance for two months and wore masks for several weeks.
Mr. Esper had made a point of praising the virtues of wearing a temporary mask indoors during a visit to the United States Northern Command in Colorado earlier this week, saying that “in the open air, that is not important,” but added that “in a room, we wear a mask.”
The new White House policy on masks comes when Trump tries to rediscover his government’s troubled history of testing for the corona virus, claiming that the United States is “unmatched and unmatched” in testing capacity but ignores initial failure to provide testing that allows the virus to spread unnoticed during for months.
Stating once again that “if someone wants to be tested now, they will be able to be tested,” Mr. Trump said that his administration is working with countries to enable them to conduct 12.9 million tests in May, insisting that testing capabilities in the United States are better than with other countries.
“We are testing more people per capita than South Korea, Britain, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland and many other countries,” he said, ignoring countries where per capita-based testing was higher, including Germany, Russia, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, and at least 20 others, according to statistics compiled by Our World in Data.
Flanked by a large poster stating “America leads the world in testing,” Trump also declared victory over the pandemic, saying that “we have met this time and we have won.” Then, under the question, he revised his comments, saying he only meant to say that the country won in increasing access to testing.
But the president’s claim that “we won the test” is also premature, even by the standards of his own government. Although the United States has increased testing from 150,000 tests per day from a month ago to 300,000 per day recently, current figures still remain far behind the five million daily target he set himself last month.
Presidential claims about testing available to anyone are also misleading. It is one thing to have enough testing capacity for all people who have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, but that is very different from having enough to provide guarantees to people who are considering returning to normal life.
The president announced that his administration had begun distributing $ 11 billion for testing approved by Congress nearly six weeks ago and claimed that Germany and the United States “lead the world in lives saved per 100,000.” That’s too much.
Germany does have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world, which is 9.13 deaths per 100,000 people. The United States, by comparison, has a figure of 24.31 deaths per 100,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That’s lower than some other European countries, such as Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Sweden, but also higher than Canada, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Iran, Brazil, and many others.
Trump also misinterpreted the trajectory of new cases in the United States.
“The numbers are far from what they were two weeks ago,” the president said. “The numbers really go down very big. This weekend is one of the lowest we have ever experienced. The number is going down very fast. “
That the number of new cases reported across the country this weekend is 45,227. That’s lower than the 60,872 cases reported from April 25 through April 26. But over the past two weeks, the number of new cases overall has only slightly declined – not much.
In addition, the trend is not “universal” throughout the country, as Trump claimed. While numbers in the New York City area have fallen, new cases are increasing in nine states and remain largely unchanged in more than two dozen.
The president abruptly ended his press conference after an Asian-American reporter urged him why he suggested he “ask China” in response to questions about the corona virus death rate.
Jiang Weijia, White House correspondent for CBS News, asked Mr. Trump why he was making “global competition” because it stressed that the United States had done far better than any other country in the world in testing its citizens for the corona virus.
“Why is that important,” Jiang asked, “if every day Americans still lose their lives and we still see more cases every day?”
“Well,” Trump answered, “they are losing their lives everywhere in the world and maybe that’s a question you should ask China.”
Jiang, who had leaned on the contact-free microphone to ask questions, lowered his face mask and paused for a few seconds before asking, “Sir, why do you say that to me, specifically?”
The president replied that he “told anyone who would ask unpleasant questions.” Trump then called Kaitlan Collins from CNN, another woman reporter with whom he was involved in a similar exchange, but then tried to move to another reporter. After Ms. Collins twice tried to ask him questions, Mr. Trump ended the press conference and returned to the Oval Office.
Helene Cooper and Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Washington.
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