After Exposure To Coronavirus, Top U.S. Health Officials Self-Quarantine

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 11, 2020 8:09 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Senate committee will hear arguments this week about whether it's safe for America to reopen. But it is clearly not safe enough for the witnesses to appear in person. All four members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force will join the hearing remotely. Three of them will be in self-quarantine after coming into contact with people who tested positive for the virus. They include Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Robert Redfield and FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us now. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: So in addition to those three officials I just named who are in self-quarantine, the White House's coronavirus testing coordinator is also going to testify remotely. What does this tell us about how close this virus has gotten to President Trump's inner circle?

LIASSON: It tells us it's gotten pretty close. The president's military valet tested positive. The vice president's press secretary tested positive. And this raises a couple questions. First of all, it raises the question that if the White House can't keep people safe, how can people be confident when they are asked to go back to work or go out to a restaurant or shop when they don't have the same resources as the White House?

It also raises the question, if these officials are self-quarantining, why aren't others at the White House doing that? The White House says it's taking extra precautions. It says the president and the vice president have tested negative repeatedly. But the president does not wear a mask and the vice president rarely does.

MARTIN: The chair of the Senate committee is also going to be in quarantine and will be chairing the whole thing from home, right?

LIASSON: That's right. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican senator, he chairs that committee. And he is going to lead it remotely because a member of his staff tested positive. Yesterday, on "Meet The Press," Alexander argued that a robust testing system is what we need to get people back to work, to figure out who's infected and who's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

LAMAR ALEXANDER: If you take a test and you know that you don't have COVID-19 and you know that everybody around you took a test that same day, you're going to have enough confidence to go back to work and back to school.

LIASSON: Alexander also said there's just not enough federal money to keep the economy in a medically induced coma for a long period of time. He's saying, to open up, you need massive testing, contact tracing, then isolation, so you can tell some people they can go to work. Others need to stay home. This is not the message we're getting from the White House. But I think you will hear more about that tomorrow during that remote hearing.

MARTIN: But, right, we still don't have widespread testing or contact tracing. So how is President Trump, as he continues to push to reopen the economy, how's he making his argument?

LIASSON: Well, he's definitely pivoted from fighting the pandemic to cheerleading for getting the economy back open as fast as possible. And he has downplayed the need for widespread testing as a condition for people to go back to work. On Friday on "Fox & Friends," the president was talking about an aide who tested positive. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have the best testing in the world. But testing is not necessarily the answer because they were testing him. They tested him four days before.

LIASSON: So testing is not necessarily the answer. The president seems to think testing is what keeps you safe. Testing just tells you whether you have the virus. It's social distancing and wearing masks and other health measures that keep you from getting it. But that's not behavior that the White House - that the president wants to model.

MARTIN: Right. Just briefly, Mara, the unemployment numbers. I mean, Friday we got April's unemployment data, the highest since the Great Depression. How is this playing into the president's reelection effort?

LIASSON: Well, the president wants to get the economy back open as soon as possible. He sees it as crucial to his reelection chances. We know that, historically, presidents usually win reelection unless there's a recession, where they usually lose.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. We appreciate it, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.