White House likened to ‘ghost town’ as anxiety over coronavirus cluster grows | World news

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The growing coronavirus cluster linked to Donald Trump is sending ripples of intense anxiety among staff, journalists and officials who spend much of their time in the White House and into the wider city of Washington DC itself.

The West Wing has reportedly turned into a “ghost town” amid complaints that the White House has failed to trace potential contacts of Trump and his infected aides, with many now working from home even as the president exhorted Americans “not to be afraid of Covid”.

That has left behind a skeleton staff of about 100 butlers, ushers, cleaners, custodians and maintenance workers, who are often older and drawn from groups at higher risk of developing severe symptoms of the virus, including a butler’s corp that has historically almost exclusively been black.

Members of the Secret Service, who protect the president, have also been thrown into the spotlight with some present and former members complaining anonymously they felt Trump had put service members at risk when they accompanied him on a controversial “drive-by” stunt outside the Walter Reed hospital.

A still contagious Trump returned to the White House on Monday and defiantly took off his mask on entering the building as complaints grew inside over the lack of precautions taken by the president and his entourage.

Journalists exposed to staffers who tested positive, and even residents in apartment blocks where infected staff members have gone to isolate, have also complained about a lack of information.

Many staff say privately they only learned about positive tests from media reports and several were exposed, without their knowledge, to people the White House already knew could be contagious. It took until late Sunday night, nearly three full days after Trump’s diagnosis, for the White House management office to send a staff-wide note to say those with symptoms should “please stay home and do not come to work”.

Reports from within the White House paint a picture of workers spooked by a lack of information over when and how certain officials became infected, with many blaming the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, for the information vacuum.

Others have pointed to the fact that Trump and his medical team have refused to disclose when the president received his last negative test, making it impossible for many to know if they had contact with him in a period when he was potentially contagious.

Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote the The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, said she recently spoke with three former employees who had expressed concern about the health of current workers, but had been too afraid to speak publicly.

The White House now has two coronavirus patients being treated on site – the president and first lady – within a cluster that some have pointed out includes more cases than all of New Zealand.

The focus of concern moved to White House residence staff, many of whom have served for decades and are famed for their discretion, after complaints emerged on Sunday over the apparent indifference of Trump to the health of Secret Service members who accompanied him on his drive-by to thank supporters.

Several who spoke with the Associated Press expressed concern over the cavalier attitude the White House had taken when it came to masks and distancing. Colleagues, they said, were angry, but felt there was little they could do.

One, speaking after the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, tested positive on Monday, said it felt like he and some of his colleagues had been spared only by a measure of good luck.

Anxiety is also being driven by the feeling among White House employees that there are only limited efforts to trace contacts of Trump and other infected staff members while information is not being shared on who has had a positive test.

The White House medical unit, which has about 30 staff, is headed by Trump’s personnel physician, Dr Sean Conley, who has attracted criticism for his vague and sometimes evasive public statements on the president’s health.

According to the New York Times, quoting an unidentified official, the White House had decided not to trace the contacts of guests and staff members who were at the Rose Garden celebration 10 days ago for Trump’s supreme court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, where at least eight people, including the president, may have become infected.

Instead, the source told the paper the efforts had been limited to notifying people who came into close contact with Trump in the two days before his Covid diagnosis on Thursday evening.

“This is a total abdication of responsibility by the Trump administration,” Dr Joshua Barocas, a public health expert at Boston University, told the paper. “The idea that we’re not involving the Centers for Disease Control to do contact tracing at this point seems like a massive public health threat.”

While Trump will reportedly work from the White House Map Room, rather than the Oval Office, interacting only with staff in personnel protective equipment, the long-time refusal by president and many in his family and inner circle to routinely wear masks and abide by social distancing rules has prompted scepticism over the arrangements.

The White House spokesman Judd Deere said the administration was taking every precaution necessary to protect not just the first family but every staff member working on the complex, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and best practices.

Agencies contributed to this report

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