President Trump Tests Positive For COVID-19

11:50 minutes

trump walking on a lawn, waving at people and press
President Trump waves as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House Sept. 30, 2020, to board Marine One to begin his trip to Minnesota. Credit: The White House/Tia Dufour

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

The news hit us overnight: President Trump, the First Lady, and at least one member of the president’s staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Just before 1 a.m. ET, the president tweeted that “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”

Sean Conley, the White House physician, confirmed the positive COVID test and said that, “The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.” The president reportedly has mild symptoms of the virus.

Joining Ira to talk about the medical ramifications and possibilities presented by the president’s infection with COVID-19 is Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York.

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Segment Guests

Angela Rasmussen

Angela Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, later in the hour will fact check your COVID newsfeed, presidential election edition. But first, the news hit us overnight that President Trump, the First Lady, and at least one member of his staff tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Just before 1am, the President tweeted that: “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this together.” Shawn Connelly, the White House physician, confirmed the positive COVID test and said that quote, “the President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.” Joining us to talk about the medical and health ramifications and possibilities presented by the president’s infection with COVID-19 is Dr. Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: What do we know about how he may have contracted it?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So that’s that’s the real mystery. There’s certainly been speculation that he contracted it from Hope Hicks, the presidential advisor who was diagnosed with having it on Wednesday when apparently she became symptomatic on Air Force One. It’s also entirely possible, however, that he could have gotten it from somebody else that he and Hope Hicks got it from the same person, or they each could have acquired it independently through their other interactions. This is going to be very complicated and difficult to contact-trace, simply because the president has been in contact with so many different people. He attended a fundraiser yesterday in New Jersey, he’s surrounded by aides who are also having contacts, presumably with their own households, their own families and other people that they’re working with. So this is really going to be a very difficult situation to investigate. And bottom line is we really need more information about who else might have contracted Coronavirus in this particular situation.

IRA FLATOW: We heard that he took multiple tests. Is it likely that he’s taking the same kinds of tests that we laypeople are taking?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: That’s a big question that I have. I’m not entirely sure what type of tests they’re using. I believe that the staffers in the White House are tested with the Abbott ID NOW rapid test or another type of rapid test. I believe that rapid testing is the standard testing protocol for people who work at the White House. There are some questions about how frequently Trump himself is tested. I would assume though, that because many of the rapid tests are lower in sensitivity than the PCR test that everybody has heard so much about over the past few months, that they would confirm that test results with a with a PCR test that would be more sensitive. However, I just again, don’t have enough details to really comment with any specifics about the type of testing protocols that were used.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, the White House has not been very transparent about this whole thing. Let’s talk about the timeline of a normal COVID case, how long after you’re infected does it take the test positive? How soon into the infection do you begin to show symptoms if you do?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So the incubation period for this virus can be potentially very long; it can be up to two weeks. And that means that you might not test positive within the first few days after you’ve been exposed. Some of it will really depend on how much of a dose you were exposed to, how much… how quickly that that virus infection can ramp up to the levels that would be detectable by a test. So it’s thought that though people can be testing positive several days before they become symptomatic, if they do become symptomatic. The New York Times reported this morning that President Trump is symptomatic, and has cold like symptoms. We know that on Wednesday, Hope Hicks was symptomatic on Air Force One. So that would place if they were exposed at the same time, that would place their exposure potentially as as early as Sunday or Monday of this week, potentially even further back towards sometime last week, or even potentially the weekend before. So there’s really, it’s very unclear right now without contact tracing to try to figure out where they were exposed, how they were exposed. And when they might have begun to test positive.

IRA FLATOW: Now the president is 74 years old and obese. That puts him at a higher risk group, doesn’t it?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: It does. So certainly President Trump is at risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms. Well, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. You know, hopefully, he will have a mild illness and will be able to recover from it. But certainly it is a concern that he is within a risk group.

IRA FLATOW: What do we know about this six foot rule? And I’m asking this because he was on stage with Joe Biden during the debates. We sit… we saw that he was further than six feet away. Is the six foot rule, sort of flexible? And and the President did a lot of loud talking, which evidence shows may spread the virus further. Does that put Joe Biden in a higher risk category?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So yes, certainly, the six foot rule is a guideline, it’s not a hard and fast rule. There is no you know, invisible forcefield that springs up at six feet that will prevent the virus from traveling further than that. And we do know that in indoor environments, particularly those that are not well ventilated, aerosol particles containing the virus can build up in the air and they can certainly travel further than six feet. The real question for me is, what was the ventilation like in that room? How long were President Trump and Joe Biden in that room outside of the debate before and after? How many other people in that room might have also been infected? A big question for me now, everybody had to get tested and test negative before attending the debate. But a big question for me is when were those tests done? If they were done the morning of the debate, and then people came to the debate hours later, it’s entirely possible for somebody to test negative in the morning and then test positive later in the day and potentially be contagious. So there’s just a lot of really open questions right now. But I think the one thing we can assume is that there’s no way to say for sure that Joe Biden is not at risk of having been exposed by attending the debate in person, as… as is the case for everybody else in that room.

IRA FLATOW: How long would it take for us to know if the President has a serious case? How do these things progress into seriousness?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Well, if the president doesn’t have a serious case, he will begin recovering within probably about a week to 10 days, and he will get better his symptoms will start to subside, he’ll be back to normal. I think if he doesn’t get better, if he continues to get worse, then, you know, then we have something to worry about. But I’m also assuming that President Trump will be treated early as early as possible. And since presumably, his case was caught fairly early, that treatment may have more of an effect. I would assume without having any details of the President’s treatment plan, that they’ll at least probably start him on remdesivir. It’s certainly what I would do if I were a physician and my patient was somebody as important as the President of the United States.

IRA FLATOW: Might he get antibody treatments also?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I’ve heard that that has been reported that he may get some of the antibody treatments that are currently in clinical development or in clinical trials. That’s that’s a possibility, too, I would imagine that like with many of the covid patients that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, they may use a kitchen sink approach in terms of treating him meaning that he will get as many different treatments as possible, in the hopes of having the best possible outcome.

IRA FLATOW: He’s now said to be quarantined. Now, if this was you and me, how long would we be quarantined in our house? And what is the normal progress of a quarantine?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So this has been a bit of a moving target. And actually, it’s technically not quarantine, what he’s doing. It’s technically isolation. quarantine is what the people who have been his contacts that people he’s been exposed to would be doing. Normally a quarantine for this would last two weeks. That’s to be on the safe side to make sure that you go through the entire incubation period with no signs of disease or a positive test. For isolation, right now, the guidelines can vary. But it usually suggests that within seven to 10 days of having your symptoms subside, you can you can stop isolating like that. So it really will be dependent how long he needs to isolate on when his symptoms begin to go away and it appears that he’s entering the convalescent phase of the of the illness.

IRA FLATOW: Well, since he has tested positive, what about all the staff and the people around him in the White House? Do they need to quarantine?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: They should, and I don’t think it’s enough to test your way out of quarantine because, frankly, we don’t have good enough tests to do that. And that’s not what we’re telling the American public to do since they certainly don’t have access to daily testing. Whether the people in the White House who have been in contact with President Trump will quarantine for 14 days I think is probably unlikely. But but we will see what the White House is going to tell us about what their plan is for dealing with this. Hopefully this afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: Trump has regularly made appearances without a mask, even mocking Joe Biden at the debate this week for regularly wearing one. Do you think this is now more evidence that masks work?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I don’t think you can say that masks work based on this. We don’t have any evidence that, you know, Trump would have been protected by a mask. We don’t know how he was exposed or how he got Coronavirus or who he got it from. But I’d say that certainly Trump’s reluctance to wear masks and his advocating against them does not… it certainly doesn’t indicate that masks are harmful. And it you know, if it could have protected him, or potentially the people around him, such as the First Lady, then, you know, hopefully he’ll rethink his policy on mask-wearing. Because certainly if more people were wearing masks in general, it’s likely that there would be less transmission and perhaps he would have been able to avoid contracting Coronavirus.

IRA FLATOW: Last question, what would you like to know? What more do we need to know about the president so that we can feel better informed?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Well, I’d like to know how often he is tested what type of test he’s using. I’d like to know more details about that. And I’d like to know what plan they have for contact-tracing. As I mentioned, the President has been in contact with quite a few people. That means that quite a few people could be at a higher exposure risk. And I’d like to know how they’re going to determine who those people are and how they’re going to notify them to take the appropriate precautions so that they’re not going on and spreading the virus around their communities and they can also seek medical care early on and seek testing. I think that one of the things that that really has been very unclear is sort of the sequence of events, like at what point did President Trump feel the need to take a coronavirus test since he’s also said that he’s not tested every day routinely? So I just really like to know more about this so that people who may have been exposed can be informed and take the proper precautions themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Angela. Angela Rasmussen is going to stay with us because when we come back we’re going to talk more about fact checking your Coronavirus News Feed, election edition. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

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