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White House coronavirus outbreak reaches the press corps

White House reporters are increasingly anxious and angry about the Trump administration's handling of COVID-19 cases within its own building.

State of play: Several White House reporters have tested positive and many are trying to figure out whether they and their families need to quarantine.

"My wife has now tested positive for COVID. The collateral damage is going to be pretty significant I think."
N.Y. Times White House correspondent Michael Shear in an interview with Axios

Driving the news: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany announced Monday that she tested positive for coronavirus, sending White House reporters scrambling to figure out whether they had been exposed.

  • McEnany briefed reporters without wearing a mask at the White House on Monday, a practice that speaks to the overall dismissal of White House officials around COVID-19 safety protocols.
  • On Monday, one of the reporters at the briefing confirmed to Axios that they would be quarantining for the next two weeks.
  • White House communications aides Chad Gilmartin and Karoline Leavitt tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend, Axios' Alayna Treene confirmed Monday after a report from ABC News.

What they're saying: Members of the press corps have expressed frustration that they've been directly exposed to officials with the virus without being warned.

  • They cite being on flights with Hope Hicks, as well as last week's presidential debate and the press briefing Sunday with McEnany, as events deserving more precautions.
  • "What frustrates me is that the White House could have and should have taken steps to mitigate or minimize the risk if they had just done simple things like wearing masks," said Shear, who believes he contracted the virus aboard Air Force One on September 26th, following the White House nomination event for Amy Coney Barrett.
  • "I felt safer reporting in North Korea than I currently do reporting at The White House. This is just crazy," tweeted CBS News White House Correspondent Ben Tracy.

The other side: Ben Williamson, a White House official who works in the communications department and is also an aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, tweeted Monday that McEnany "briefly removed her mask at the mic to answer questions, was there for two questions and only 58 seconds (would not constitute ‘sustained contact’ per the CDC), and was socially distanced from reporters in the area."

I sat in close proximity to two maskless, now COVID positive, White House staffers at last Thursday’s briefing. So I am now working from home & getting regular COVID tests.

— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) October 5, 2020

Critics argue that White House officials have engaged in reckless behavior by exposing members of the press corps, as well as other staffers, while knowingly carrying the virus, or having come in contact with those who test positive.

  • On Friday, White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) president Zeke Miller said in a letter to colleagues that at least three members of the White House press corps had tested positive for the virus.
  • In his note, Miller confirmed that the The White House Medical Unit is beginning the process of contact tracing for these cases, but that they do not yet have an estimated time of completion for that process.
  • The WHCA said in a statement Sunday: "We strongly encourage everyone else who was on the White House grounds from 9/26-10/2 to avail themselves of testing options, through their local health department, personal physician, employer or other accommodation before returning to the White House complex."

The big picture: Administration officials have long downplayed the seriousness of the virus.

  • "Most officials don’t wear masks," a White House reporter told Axios. "They don’t socially distance with each other."
  • Shear said that as of Monday evening, he still hadn't heard from the White House at all about any sort of contact tracing efforts, but that the WHCA has been good about implementing their own contract tracing procedure.
  • In response to the news about McEnany, the WHCA said, “We wish Kayleigh, the president and everyone else struggling with the virus a swift recovery."

The bottom line: The situation also puts in jeopardy coverage of the White House at a time when facts and accurate information have never been more muddled.

  • CBS News digital White House reporter Kathryn Watson tweeted: "Even though there isn't a high likelihood of contracting the virus outside at a bit of a distance, some reporters will have to quarantine. It upends the entire workflow of the White House press corps at a time when coverage has never been more critical."

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