WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump insisted his administration has “met the moment” and “prevailed” on coronavirus testing, even as the White House itself became a potent symbol of the risk facing Americans everywhere by belatedly ordering everyone who enters the West Wing to wear a mask.
Trump on Monday addressed a Rose Garden audience filled with mask-wearing administration officials, some appearing publicly with face coverings for the first time during the outbreak, after two aides tested positive for COVID-19 late last week. The startling sight served only to further highlight the challenge the president faces in instilling confidence in a nation still reeling from the pandemic.
Trump himself, not wearing a mask, sought to emphasize to the American people the steps being taken to ensure their safety — in hopes that will coax them to resume normal activities.
Shortage of coronavirus testing has long been a sore spot for the president, but he insisted anew that everyone who wants a test can get one. The pledge, first issued by Trump more than two months ago, comes as governors across the country continue to call on the federal government to do more to boost supply to meet the requirements needed to begin “reopening” the nation.
The upbeat message was undercut by the new protective measures implemented to keep Trump safe, evidenced by the absence of Vice President Mike Pence and three of the nation’s top medical experts, who were in various states of isolation after two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed among staffers in one of the most-protected complexes in America.
A memo to staff Monday directed “everyone who enters the West Wing to wear a mask or facial covering.” Staff will be allowed to remove their face coverings if they sit at least six feet apart from their colleagues. The directive apparently doesn’t apply to the president.
Monday’s briefing was meant to highlight the availability of COVID-19 testing as the White House seeks to convince Americans the country is safely reopening.
“They should all be able to get a test right now,” Trump said, even though experts say there is no capacity for testing on that scale. Officials later clarified that “everybody who needs a test can get a test.”
Only on Monday did the administration believe it had enough tests to mount a nationwide testing campaign to address significant death rates in nursing homes and other senior care facilities. On a call with governors, Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coordinator for the virus response, recommended that every nursing home occupant and staffer be tested for COVID-19 in the next two weeks, with vigilant monitoring going forward, especially of staff.
Pence led the weekly call with governors from an isolated room, after his press secretary tested positive Friday. Birx and other staffers participated as usual from a conference room in the Situation Room, Pence said, explaining the “slightly different circumstance.”
“We are taking the appropriate countermeasures to protect the president’s health,” Pence added, according to a recording obtained by The Associated Press. The White House was moving to daily testing of some staff members to detect the disease.
The stepped-up protective measures come as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, and the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, were all quarantining after exposure to the White House staffer.
The three experts are scheduled to testify before a Senate panel Tuesday on “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” However, they, along with committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., will all participate remotely. Alexander is quarantining after a staff member of his own tested positive for COVID-19.
The images of top administration officials taking such precautions come as states seek to loosen economic restrictions put in place to mitigate the virus’ spread.
Trump on Monday complained that Democratic governors were too slow in lifting restrictions in their states.
“The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails,” he tweeted. “The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!”
Trump was scheduled to travel to the state on Thursday, according to advisories from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Associated Press writer Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.