White House staff, Secret Service eye virus with fear, anger

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WASHINGTON – The West Wing is a ghost town. Staff are afraid of being exposed. And the White House is now a treatment room for not one – but two – COVID patients, including a president who has long taken the threat of the virus lightly. US President Donald Trump’s decision to return home from a military hospital despite his persistent illness re-emphasizes those around him who could be at greater risk if he does not adhere to strict isolation protocols .

Throughout the pandemic, White House guards, ushers, kitchen staff and members of the U.S. Secret Service have continued to report for work in what is now a coronavirus hotspot, with more than a dozen known cases this week alone.

Trump, still contagious, has made it clear that he has little intention of complying with best containment practices.

Upon his return to the White House on Monday evening, the president defiantly removed his face mask and stopped to pose on a balcony a few steps from a White House photographer. He was seen inside moments later surrounded by numerous people as he recorded a video message urging Americans not to fear a virus that has killed more than 210,000 in the United States and 1 million worldwide .

White House spokesman Judd Deere said the White House was “taking all necessary precautions” to protect not only the First Family, but “every member of staff working on the complex,” in accordance with guidelines and best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He added that physical access to the president would be severely limited and that proper protective gear would be worn by his relatives.

Nevertheless, the mood within the White House remains grim, with staff fearing they have been exposed to the virus. As they face a new reality – a building site that once looked like a security bubble – they have also pledged to point the finger at conflicting reports published about the president’s health as well as a lack of information provided in internal.

Many learned of the existence of positive tests from the media, and many were unwittingly exposed to people whom the White House already knew could be contagious.

Indeed, it was not until late Sunday night, nearly three full days after Trump’s diagnosis, for the White House to send a note to all staff in response. Even then, he did not recognize the epidemic.

“As a reminder,” read the letter from the White House Office of Management, “if you experience symptoms … please stay home and do not come to work.” Staff members who develop symptoms have been advised to “go home immediately” and contact their doctors rather than the White House medical unit.

Even when Trump was in the hospital, his staff were not immune to risk.

Trump had assistants there to record videos and take photos of him. On Sunday evening, he took a surprise stroll around the hospital greeting supporters from the window of an SUV. Secret service agents in the car with him were wearing personal protective equipment.

“Appropriate precautions have been taken during the execution of this move to protect the President and all who support him, including the EPP,” Deere said.

Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley dismissed media concerns about the safety of officers as “absolutely stupid and senseless.”

“How do they think he’s going to leave?” Is someone going to throw him the keys to a Buick and let him go home alone? They’re always around him because it’s their job, ”Gidley told Fox News.

But the officers told a very different story.

Several people who spoke with the Associated Press expressed concern about the White House’s cavalier attitude towards masks and distancing. Colleagues, they said, are angry, but feel there is little they can do.

One, speaking after White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany tested positive on Monday, said he felt he and some of his colleagues were spared only by some chance.

Others have noted the difference between facing external threats they have trained for – a gun, bomb, or biohazard – and being exposed to additional risk because of behavior they characterize. sometimes carefree. The agents spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their work.

The Secret Service declined to disclose how many of its employees tested positive or had to be quarantined, citing confidentiality and security. But in the midst of the election, thousands of officers are on duty and anyone who tests positive can easily be replaced, officials said.

Secret Service spokeswoman Julia McMurray said the agency is taking “all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and health of our charges, employees and families, as well as the general public.”

Trump joined First Lady Melania Trump, who also tested positive, in the residential area of ​​the White House. It is typically served by a staff of around 100, including housekeepers, cooks, florists, gardeners and five or six butlers – who interact most closely with the president, said Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote on “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” ”

During the pandemic, that staff was reduced to a skeleton crew, with masks being worn much more prevalent than in the West Wing, where few people wear them regularly.

Brower said she recently spoke with three former employees who expressed concern about the health of current workers but were too afraid to speak publicly.

“Butlers always feel protective of the First Family, but you just wonder if the staff would get sick or not,” Brower said. Most are older, she said, “because they work from generation to generation. These are people who have worked for 20 to 30 years. They want to work to receive their full pension ”.

For months now, cleaning staff have also privately voiced concerns about their safety, including lack of access to testing and inadequate protective gear.

Stephanie Grisham, spokesperson for the first lady, said “every precaution is taken to ensure the health and safety of staff at the residence,” but declined to be specific.

Although the White House refused to implement new security procedures – such as making masks mandatory – the building was visibly emptier on Monday, with more employees now staying at home on days they are not. necessary on site.

As of Monday morning, there was only one staff member in the downstairs press office, where two medical staff administered COVID-19 tests, surrounded by empty desks.

This is not the first time that a White House has faced a virus. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson was infected, as were members of his family and White House staff, including his secretary and several members of the Secret Service, according to the White House Historical Association. .

So were two sheep who spent their days grazing on the south lawn. They were hospitalized but recovered.

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Associated Press editors Aamer Madhani, Zeke Miller, Michael Balsamo, and Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.

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