Why Don't White House Cooks and Housekeepers Get Contact Tracing?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


October 22, 2020

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

We've all been watching the drama unfold as President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, went off to Walter Reed, took a ride in the parking lot to greet some of his supporters, and was discharged back to the White House.

We have been listening to coverage about who might have been exposed, who got infected, and whether the Rose Garden event was a superspreader. It looks like it is certainly a big outbreak.

Reports quickly surfaced that everyone from the First Lady to the press secretary to other high officials to some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all been infected with COVID-19. Hopefully they will all come through it as well as the president.

What we didn't see, and what's important to understand, is that the president said nothing about contact tracing after the Rose Garden event to welcome his Supreme Court nominee, which seems to have been one potential outlet for a spread of the virus.

The White House said it didn't want contact tracing done by the CDC. I found that very disappointing, partly because the White House has been willing to intervene on many other questions of COVID-19. Those were elected officials in positions of power and authority, whether they are senators, press secretaries, the president's spouse, or the president himself, and they're going to be able to access very good medical care.

I worry a great deal that we didn't trace, notify, or talk about all of the other people that support the president, the president's family, and those people who work in the White House: food handlers, laundry people, dressers, security people, people who mow the lawn, people who put out flowers — people who are involved, in other words, in the daily life of the White House.

I looked and I checked. Many of these people are older. They've had positions there for many decades. Many of them are minority, which could put them at higher risk from COVID-19. Many of them, I suspect, are not going to be able to go to Walter Reed or aren't going to be able to access their private doctor, or may not even be aware that they might have been exposed to someone who had COVID-19.

This illustrates a gap in our society and even in our media coverage that I think is really unfortunate. We tend to pay attention to the president, his entourage, those in positions of power, and wonder whether they got infected with COVID-19 and what that means for our national security. What does it mean for elections? What does it mean for, if you will, the stability of the country? Those are important things.

We shouldn't forget that COVID-19 has taken its primary toll on the underprivileged, those who are often in minority groups, and those who are often in settings where healthcare has been very poor. That extends right into the White House.

I'm hoping that we do get some contact tracing, that we do have aggressive measures taken to try to notify and protect those people who are working in the White House and the West Wing.

The president went back there after he left Walter Reed. The first thing he did was take off his mask before he went back inside.

I kind of blanched at that and found myself thinking, If that's him going back in there highly infectious without a mask, we really have to make sure that the pressure is on to protect those people who work in the White House.

They need to make sure he's quarantined, to make sure they're isolated, to make sure they get the kind of healthcare that those in power, those who are prestigious, and those who the media tends to track are getting and certainly will get.

We can't have a two-class system when it comes to COVID-19. It's just unfair and it puts many Americans at risk in a way that we shouldn't tolerate.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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