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When the history of America’s failing response to the novel coronavirus is written, a chapter will certainly focus on the Rose Garden images of Sept. 26 at the White House.
There, amid a presidential celebration of a rushed nomination to the Supreme Court, America’s leaders behaved as if over 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19 as of that day never happened. Air kisses and bear hugs flowed freely among the couple of hundred attendees, and a smaller group later inside the White House, with little evidence of mask wearing and none of social distancing. But the virus was there. And it was busy as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, threw his arms around friends, and former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway whispered into Attorney General William Barr’s ear, and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulled a friend close in greeting so they were cheek to cheek.
Conduct at the event in many ways echoed Donald Trump’s serial rallies, where hundreds gather cheek to jowl without distancing and masks to cheer him. Except leaders and officials gathered in the Rose Garden should have known better — people like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, grinning without a face covering as he fist-bumped, and the Rev. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame University president who ignored face-mask precautions that he requires of his own students.
Who have tested positive for COVID
Like outbreaks at weddings, meat-packing plants and motorcycle rallies, the Rose Garden ceremony would take on all the hallmarks of a superspreader event. Attendees who have tested positive for coronavirus include Lee, Conway, Christie, Jenkins and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. Donald and Melania Trump have fallen ill. And as the virus has spread through the White House and to Capitol Hill, a dozen others have become infected. More are expected. (Among those in the Rose Garden who have so far tested negative are Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence, Azar and Barr.)
Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence sitting directly across from first lady Melania Trump, with former White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway right behind her, in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26, 2020. Next to the first lady is the family of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. (Photo: Shawn Thew/epa-EFE/Shutterstock)
How could this — a form of biological attack on the top echelons of American government — happen?
A sad brew of hubris and misapplied science led White House officials and guests to believe they could frolic in a kind of virus-free bubble, exempted from the preventative measures that have reshaped and constrained the lives of millions of average Americans.
Testing is not ‘a metal detector’
The White House for months has relied on an Abbott Laboratories coronavirus test to screen White House guests. It provides results within 15 minutes, but at a false-negative rate up to 30%. The White House wielded this tool like “a metal detector,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, even though that was never its intended use.
Guests who tested negative at the Rose Garden were told they could take off their masks. They mingled like it was 2019.
Across the country on that same day, about 865 people died as a result of COVID-19. The infection rate, if anything, is actually on the rise in the United States.
Six days after the event that turned the White House into a hot spot, a feverish president short of breath was flown by helicopter for admittance to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He received top-line treatment, including an experimental antibody cocktail accessible to few other patients. Trump returned to the White House on Monday much improved, though doctors say he must be monitored closely for the next several days.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” the president tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”
More than 30,000 Americans are hospitalized because of the coronavirus. Hundreds are dying every day.
If there were lessons to be learned from what happened in the Rose Garden, the president seems to have learned the wrong ones.
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