'It Is Scary to Go to Work': Inside Coronavirus Prevention at the White House as Staffers Get Infected
The staff is ramping up protective measures while some units are working from home, senior administration officials tell PEOPLE
As President Donald Trump continues to call for the country to "safely" reopen amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the White House has been taking steps to quell an outbreak of cases in the West Wing.
Two White House staffers tested positive for the coronavirus last week: Katie Miller, the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, and a valet who helped serve the president his food and
“It is scary to go to work,” Kevin Hassett, one of Trump's top economic advisers, said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday. “I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.”
Still, he said, "It’s the time when people have to step up and serve their country."
Hassett's comments, which came in the wake of at least two of his West Wing colleagues contracting the virus, reflect a national concern that the U.S. president and his top administration officials are at risk of coming down with the respiratory illness that has now infected more than four million people worldwide, according to available data.
At least 83,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus, a New York Times tracker shows, while roughly 1.4 million around the country have contracted the COVID-19 illness the virus causes.
A senior Trump administration official tells PEOPLE that the president's physician and White House operations staff are making sure "every precaution is taken to keep the president, first family and the entire White House complex safe and healthy at all times."
The official says that "every staff member in close proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for COVID-19, as well as any guests."
The monitoring of people within close proximity to Trump comes "in addition to social distancing, face coverings, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all work spaces," according to the official.
White House staffers are now being directed to wear masks while at work, except when they're working at their desks, according to multiple news outlets.
NPR reported earlier this week that a senior White House official said Trump, 73, and Pence, 60, were "maintaining their distance in the immediate future," at the direction of White House medical staff.
Pence wasn't at Monday's press briefing with Trump and the president — who used his own podium on Monday, separate from other administration officials — told reporters that he and Pence "can talk on the phone," signaling that they were keeping their distance as concern about their individual health continues.
Trump told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he and Pence had been communicating via phone and quipped that he misses the vice president.
“I haven’t seen Mike Pence and I miss him," Trump said, according to Bloomberg News reporter Jennifer Jacobs. “I guess for a little while we’ll stay apart."
Concern about Trump and other administration officials contracting the virus has existed since the pandemic became a reality in the United States and effectively shut the country down in mid-March — and as politicians at home and abroad became ill.
Most recently, Pence's decision to not wear a face mask late last month while visiting COVID-19 patients at a Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic drew the ire of medical professionals and critics who said his choice was "dangerous" and "disrespectful."
The Times reported on Sunday that Trump has privately "been growing irritated with people who get too close to him" and was "spooked" that the valet who tested positive for the virus hadn't been wearing a mask — a stark change in the president's tone from two months ago about the potential danger of the virus.
In March, Trump initially refused to get tested for the virus after he dined and took photos at his Mar-A-Lago Club with Brazilian government officials who later tested positive for COVID-19
Both he and Pence said they didn't need to be tested at the time because they weren't exhibiting common symptoms.
Neither was Miller, Pence's press secretary who tested positive for the virus on Friday morning.
Fox News reported Wednesday that researchers at New York University believe the rapid coronavirus test being used at the White House may be misdiagnosing half the tests it runs, while administration officials like Hassett (who have taken the test) have signaled their own concerns about testing in general.
"Even testing doesn't remove all risks," Hassett, 58, said on Face the Nation, referencing Miller's case during his interview.
"The interesting or sad thing about my dear colleague who was stricken with the coronavirus this week is we were getting tested because we're close to the president everyday," Hassett said. "Even with that, she tested negative one day and positive the next day and she's going to work in a community where people are being tested. This is a very, very scary virus."
In the East Wing, Melania Trump's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham tells PEOPLE that the first lady's staff is teleworking.
"If we go in for meetings, we get tested and strictly adhere to social distancing," says Grisham, 43.
Although the White House has 132 different rooms and spans 55,000 square feet, federal employees say workspaces can be tight and cramped.
Hassett, who said Sunday he practices "aggressive" social distancing, described the White House as "a small, crowded place" and said he'd feel safer working at home.
"It’s a little bit risky," Hassett admitted. "But you have to do it, because you have to serve your country and there are a lot of things you can't do except there."
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