Read: All the president’s lies about the coronavirus
The president’s reported illness also raises a chain-reaction question: When, exactly, was the president infected? And how many other people in the White House—or across the federal government—might be sick? The first hint that something might have gone amiss came last night, when Bloomberg reported that Hope Hicks, a close Trump adviser, had tested positive for the virus. Hicks was apparently at the president’s side on Wednesday as he traveled to Minnesota for a campaign rally. The night before, Trump had debated former Vice President Joe Biden, standing about a dozen feet from the Democratic nominee for more than 90 minutes.
Hicks came down with symptoms on Wednesday night and “quarantined” on Air Force One on the flight back to the capital, according to The Washington Post. She received a positive test yesterday morning. Yet the White House did not release the results of that test, or hint that anyone near the president might be ill, until Bloomberg’s report hours later.
Trump’s entourage has operated with a casual disregard for coronavirus protocol throughout the pandemic. In August, the president added Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious disease, to the Coronavirus Task Force. Atlas proceeded to downplay the virus and meddle with federal testing policy. Upon visiting the White House that month, our colleague Peter Nicholas reported that few West Wing staffers wore masks, and that visitors were not effectively screened for illness. The nation’s most famous address felt “like a coronavirus breeding ground,” he said, because of the lack of safety protocols.
Read: White House, petri dish
But the president’s illness still raises more questions than it answers. Although Hicks spent considerable time with the president this week, the timing of her illness and of the president’s positive test result may not match up. COVID-19 has a regular course of disease, with a predictable number of days separating infection, early symptoms, and the worst illness. Even the best PCR tests, which detect the virus’s genetic material, are not likely to catch infections that began within the previous two days. In other words, it typically takes four or more days for the virus to multiply and reach detectable levels inside the body.
Someone can test positive for the virus without experiencing symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that symptoms of COVID-19 are most likely to begin four to five days after exposure, but they have been observed to start anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure. At the same time, current evidence suggests that people who have COVID-19 are most infectious at the very moment their symptoms begin.
It’s possible, in other words, that Hicks infected the president and the first lady on Tuesday, and he tested positive yesterday. But other possibilities seem just as likely: Perhaps Hicks was sick for longer than she knew, and she infected the president earlier this week. (If so, was she infectious when she attended the presidential debate on Tuesday?) Or perhaps some other person infected the president, the first lady, and Hicks—a scenario that would indicate a very serious outbreak in the White House. It would not be surprising if, in coming days, we learn that more members of Trump’s retinue and Cabinet have contracted the virus. Nor would it be shocking to learn that the president was contagious when he shared a debate stage with Biden.