Guests, most of them without masks, crammed together in the White House’s Rose Garden on September 26. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Guests, most of them without masks, crammed together in the White House’s Rose Garden on September 26. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House virus cluster linked to ‘moronic’ event

At least seven people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last 24 hours were at the same event held at the White House a week ago.

On September 26, more than 150 guests gathered in the Rose Garden to watch President Donald Trump announce his nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death.

It was a celebration. His pick for the role, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, represented something America's conservatives had long craved - a chance to decisively shift the balance of the nation's highest court in their favour.

"I want to thank the members of the Senate, we have so many of them here today. I see you in the audience, and you're so proud," a jubilant Mr Trump said.

"Thank you very much for being here. Thank you all."

In front of him, attendees sat in close proximity to each other. Few of them wore face masks; none practised proper social distancing.

The crowd watching Mr Trump and Judge Barrett speak. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The crowd watching Mr Trump and Judge Barrett speak. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

At the time I'm writing this, we know that seven people who were in the Rose Garden that day have been infected with the virus.

They are: Mr Trump himself, First Lady Melania Trump, Utah Senator Mike Lee, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, the University of Notre Dame's president, Reverend John Jenkins, and a White House reporter who has not been identified.

The true number is almost certainly higher, for two reasons.

First, because some high profile guests, such as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, are still awaiting their test results.

And second, because there were plenty of less famous people in the crowd whose infections will never be reported.

Each guest tested negative for the virus on their way in. According to Rev Jenkins, they were then told they no longer needed to cover their faces, even though a negative test is not definitive proof that someone is not infected.

Subsequent video footage shows Mr Lee, a Republican, mingling with other attendees and even hugging them while his face mask hung uselessly in his hand.

There is also footage of Ms Conway standing in the crowd, alongside Attorney-General Bill Barr, though thankfully she was not hugging anyone.

Ms Conway's husband George is a conservative lawyer, and a vehement critic of the President. He helped found The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans that is seeking to stop his re-election.

In the wake of his wife's diagnosis today, he was clearly seething.

First, he replied to a tweet about the frustration among some Secret Service agents, who feel the President's actions have "repeatedly put them at risk".

"I can relate," Mr Conway quipped.

Then he angrily shared a series of photos from the Rose Garden, which showed how tightly packed the guests were while Mr Trump and Judge Barrett spoke.

"I'm livid. LIVID," he wrote.

"Utterly moronic understates it.

"No responsible organisation run by intelligent and competent people would hold an event like this in America today."

The Conways' 15-year-old daughter Claudia was also furious.

"Update, my mum has COVID," she told her 880,000 followers on TikTok.

"I'm furious. Wear your masks. Don't listen to our idiot f***ing President piece of s***. Protect yourselves and those around you."

Dr Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical expert for CNN, offered a more measured take on the situation, albeit one that was still alarming.

"We're starting to be able to describe this as a superspreader event that occurred," Dr Gupta said of the Rose Garden celebration.

"It was outside, which is beneficial. But people unmasked, within six feet (about two metres), closely clustered for long periods of time - that is where many of the people maybe had the first exposure."

He identified another significant problem as well. Because the event took place a full week ago, and its attendees have since scattered across the country, effective contact tracing could prove extremely difficult.

"It can be really hard," said Dr Gupta.

"Because people, if they didn't get tested, they don't know. They could have been spreading for a long time.

"With the President, if he developed symptoms Thursday, it's usually a few days before you develop symptoms where you're the most contagious. During that time, the President travelled to five states. He came in contact with a lot of people.

"It becomes increasingly challenging. The event that you're looking at is increasingly sounding like a superspreader event. We haven't said that very often, because it's so hard to do contact tracing in this country.

"When you have 40,000 new infections a day, it's a laborious task to do contact tracing. But this one is becoming clearer."

Originally published as Virus cluster linked to 'moronic' event

First Lady Melania Trump alongside Judge Barrett’s husband and children. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
First Lady Melania Trump alongside Judge Barrett’s husband and children. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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