White House directs staff to wear masks after officials contract coronavirus

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US President Donald Trump on Monday hailed coronavirus testing efforts as the best in the world, but abruptly ended his Rose Garden news conference when grilled over why testing is a "competition" when people are still dying.
Pressure is growing for the White House to take further steps in protecting the health of US President Donald Trump. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - The White House has directed staff working in the West Wing, where the daily operations of US President Donald Trump's administration are carried out, to wear masks at all times in the building, except when they are at their own desks, a senior administration official confirmed on Monday (May 11).

The new guidelines, released in a memo to the president's staff on Monday afternoon, reflect a tightening of procedures at the highest levels of the US government over fears that Mr Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence could be exposed to the virus.

With Mr Trump's valet and Mr Pence's press secretary both testing positive for the deadly coronavirus last week, pressure is growing for the White House to take further steps in protecting the health of the country's 73-year-old president.

Mr Trump has been resistant to wearing a mask himself and has not put one on in public, though he said he tried some on backstage during a visit to a mask factory in Arizona last week.

The president is in the age group that is considered high risk for complications with the coronavirus, which has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States alone and ravaged countries and economies worldwide.

Mr Trump said on Monday he did not think those cases suggested the White House system had broken down.

"I felt no vulnerability whatsoever," Mr Trump said, adding he felt the situation was controlled "very well".

Still, the president said he would discuss maintaining some distance from Mr Pence, perhaps by communicating with him by phone, for a period of time.

Mr Pence worked at the White House on Monday but did not attend a news conference held in the Rose Garden.

The White House said last week it was stepping up precautions for people who are around Mr Trump and Mr Pence, both of whom have resumed travel outside of Washington. The two men are being tested for the virus daily and close associates are receiving tests on a daily basis as well.

Officials who attended wore masks, and speakers used a different podium from the one used by Mr Trump.

"In addition to social distancing, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all work spaces, every staff member in close proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for Covid-19 as well as any guests," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

ABC News first reported about the memo, which also said unnecessary visits from other parts of the White House complex to the West Wing area, which includes the Oval Office and work space for senior advisers, are being discouraged.

Officials who work near the president have been getting tested for the coronavirus but previously had not been wearing masks on a regular basis.

"Common sense has finally prevailed," one senior administration official said.

After Mr Pence's spokeswoman, Mrs Katie Miller, tested positive for the virus last week, Mr Trump was asked whether people in the West Wing would begin to wear masks.

He responded that people already were doing so, but he and his guests that day had not donned masks, and staff in the West Wing were not wearing them either.

Mr Trump said on Monday that Mr Pence has tested negative for coronavirus. He also suggested that Mr Pence was in quarantine after his press secretary tested positive, though he did not say it outright.

"I would say that he and I will be talking about that," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House. "He tested negative, so we have to understand that, but he comes into contact with a lot of people."

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