When he called the White House about a coronavirus outbreak, the Indiana doctor expected to get some help, not a “head in the sand approach.”
It was Oct. 1, and Mark Fox, a county public health officer in South Bend, had just learned that the University of Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus after attending a Rose Garden ceremony days earlier in honor of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. It seemed likely that either Jenkins had taken the virus to the White House, potentially infecting others there, or he had become infected in Washington and brought the virus home to South Bend.
There are long-standing protocols for investigating the spread of a virus: contact tracing, or interviewing infected people about their recent interactions and advising those exposed that they should get tested. There’s also a more cutting-edge technology that can map the spread of a virus by tracking tiny changes in its genetic code. The Trump administration did not effectively deploy either technique in response to what Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, has called a “superspreader event” at the White House, leaving not just the president and his staff at risk, but also the hundreds of people who were potentially exposed.
Officials say the White House called off early efforts to get to the bottom of the outbreak, including sequencing the genomes of virus samples from infected individuals. This genetic analysis could have revealed shared mutations that linked cases in Washington and other affected communities.
Had the administration done such an investigation, it would know whether infections among aides to Vice President Pence that were reported this past weekend bore the same genetic signature as earlier cases at the White House. That could indicate whether the virus was circulating among administration officials for weeks or had slipped through infection-control measures a second time.
But the administration has shown little interest in investigating its outbreak, Fox said. He was initially told that the White House would send contact tracers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of a multistate investigation — and later learned they were asked to stand down. To this day, Fox, the local official tasked with contact tracing for the outbreak, has not seen a full list of people from his county who attended the Rose Garden ceremony.
“I have seen so many opportunities not just missed but cavalierly dismissed by this White House,” said Fox, citing the president’s travel even after learning he’d been in close contact with staff members who tested positive. “He failed to follow what in our county would have been really basic public health guidance.”
Fox’s frustration with the White House response isn’t unique. In Minnesota, after a Sept. 30 Trump visit,