U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on Nov. 3. (Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)
After months of mostly refusing to wear masks, President Trump and his wife are now reported to have tested positive for COVID-19.
Initial reactions have varied widely, from concern for the Trumps, to concerns for former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife to even skepticism of the positive test entirely. But with a little science and contact tracing, we can actually make some pretty good speculations as to the accuracy of the president testing positive for COVID-19 — it’s pretty likely — and possibly even identify the source of infection.
It was stated the president and his wife tested negative for COVID-19 in preparation for Tuesday’s debate, making the most likely scenario that Tuesday’s test was a false negative. This means the Trumps had likely already come into contact with the virus, but they wouldn’t yet have tested positive. The plausibility comes from the known testing limits regarding the latency period between viral contraction and testing positive, and highlights perfectly why testing is not adequate in isolation. Masks and physical distancing remain crucial.
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This scenario is further supported by Trump’s White House adviser Hope Hicks testing positive sometime prior to Wednesday evening, implying she likely had contracted the virus prior to flying on Air Force One with Trump to the debate. It’s therefore possible Trump could have contracted the virus at this time, particularly as there does not appear to be other known exposures based on his travel schedule, and the flight passengers are said to have been unmasked. If so, Trump would have likely been contagious at the debate — a big problem, since he didn’t wear a mask there, either.
This means Trump’s entire flight of passengers, the Bidens, as well as moderator Chris Wallace and any others at the debate are directly at risk of also contracting the virus. While the Bidens have reportedly tested negative as of Friday morning, the testing delay does not yet fully clear anyone who may have contracted the virus at Tuesday’s debate. Hopefully, the distancing between podiums and lack of physical contact was sufficient. However, to quote a colleague, “Trump’s rage spittle might have had some serious distance.”
Politically, some reports now suggest Trump’s positive test gives Joe Biden free rein on the campaign trail. This is false, and a direct reflection on the failing of the Trump administration to adequately advise Americans on how to best manage COVID-19 exposure. In fact, scientific guidelines strongly recommend a person quarantine for 10 to 14 days upon known exposure to COVID-19. Biden’s exposure to Trump should therefore also ground him from campaigning. This is an election-stopper all around.
Other scenarios, including the possibility of a political stunt by Trump, appear less likely.
False negative testing by staffers or others at the debate who might have then infected the president and his wife are possible, but no other known contacts of exposure make the first scenario far more likely.
In a horrifying consideration, it’s potentially tenable that Tuesday’s test for Trump was actually positive, but said to be negative so he could still participate in the debate. This sounds over-the-top, even for Trump, but until details of how the debate testing was conducted we can’t officially rule it out. If the president’s team conducted the testing, and it wasn’t confirmed by an independent source, it’s technically on the table.
The final scenario is that the Trumps contracted the virus in the two days after the debate. Based on testing limits and known exposures, this, too, is unlikely.
In full consideration, and understanding that contracting the disease does more to hurt Trump’s campaign than it does benefit, it is much less likely this is a political stunt. If anything, it serves as a reminder of the over 205,000 Americans already killed by the outbreak, and gives credence to transmissibility and susceptibility of older generations. Trump, age 74, is already reported to be experiencing mild symptoms, and given his clear comorbidities he is at higher risk for more serious disease progression in the coming days to weeks.
In fact, both presidential candidates are at higher risk for severity of COVID-19 symptoms — and even death — and equally concerning is the potential for wider outbreaks among top Republican ranks. In addition to the Trumps, Hicks and a flight full of passengers, Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee has also newly tested positive and begun a 10-day quarantine. Conveying the height of irresponsibility, Trump also knowingly attended a Republican fundraiser after interacting with Hicks, who had already tested positive, and during a time we now know he would have been contagious. Contract tracing for attendees is actively underway.
All this begs the question: How many key Republicans might have been exposed, and could enough be forced to quarantine leading up to hearings for Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett? Possibly, although it’s more likely to at most delay a vote than to be severe enough to last through inauguration. Might Trump become incapacitated, making his run for a second term not possible? Might Democrats be forced to prepare Sen. Kamala Harris to find a new vice president of her own? The mind reels at the possibilities. For now, though some are more likely than others, these all remain within the boundaries.
For the next two weeks, all eyes should be on Biden, Wallace and others who were present at the debate or near the president on Tuesday and Wednesday. As if 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, an already unprecedented election season might have just upped the ante.
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