White House officials ordered to wear face masks

White House officials have been ordered to wear face masks after two cases of coronavirus inside the West Wing prompted several senior health officials to self-quarantine.

The White House on Monday told staff that officials and visitors entering the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office where President Donald Trump works, would have to wear face coverings unless they were at their desks.

The White House guidance will only apply to staff, and not to Mr Trump. 

The move comes after two White House officials, including a personal valet to Mr Trump, contracted the virus. Katie Miller, communications director for Mike Pence, the vice-president, also tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday.

Mr Pence returned to the White House on Monday even as other members of the White House coronavirus task force that he leads took precautionary measures following possible exposure.

In addition to Ms Miller and the valet, a personal assistant to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and White House aide, has also tested positive, according to a person familiar with the situation. The assistant does not work in the White House.

Mr Trump said that Ms Miller’s diagnosis prompted three senior task force members, who have frequent interactions with Mr Trump and Mr Pence, to self-quarantine. 

Anthony Fauci, 79, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has started “modified quarantine”. Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are also quarantining.

“I don’t think the system broke down at all,” Mr Trump said at a White House news conference on Monday. “It can happen. It’s the hidden enemy.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended that people wear marks to reduce the odds that they transmit the disease to others. Mr Trump previously said that he supported the guidelines but stressed that he would not wear one himself because he did not believe that it was appropriate given his position.

The diagnoses of cases inside the White House has complicated Mr Trump’s efforts to argue for states to reopen their economies as the number of cases fall in some parts of the country. Mr Trump is concerned about the ongoing lockdown’s impact on the economy, which could affect his re-election chances in November.

Mr Trump at the weekend said he was “not worried” about the disease spreading in the White House. But Kevin Hassett, a top White House economic official, told CBS television that it was “scary to go to work” and he knew it was “a little bit risky”.

The first coronavirus cases in the White House are the closest the disease is known to have come to Mr Trump since he came into contact with an infected Brazilian official at Mar-a-Lago in March. While Ms Miller works with Mr Pence, she has overseen communications for the task force. She is also married to Stephen Miller, one of the longest-serving Trump aides in the White House who also helps write the president’s speeches.

The CDC on Monday said Mr Redfield had “had a low risk exposure” last week to a White House official with Covid-19. It said the director would telecommute for two weeks and would take all required precautions under CDC guidelines if he was required to attend coronavirus task force briefings at the White House during that period.

Mr Fauci, Mr Redfield and Mr Hahn will on Tuesday testify virtually before a Senate committee about how Americans can safely return to work and school as some states begin to lift their coronavirus lockdowns.

Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Washington

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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