The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Politicians jockeying for covid-19 tests find proximity to Trump is the fastest route

Former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, left, and his designated successor, Mark Meadows, both got coronavirus tests while exhibiting no symptoms of the disease.
Former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, left, and his designated successor, Mark Meadows, both got coronavirus tests while exhibiting no symptoms of the disease. (Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images)
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Late last month, Mick Mulvaney, who was still the acting White House chief of staff at the time, told a crowd of conservative activists that the media was exaggerating the threat posed by covid-19 because “they think this will bring down the president, that’s what this is all about. . . . It’s not a death sentence, it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”

But unbeknown to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mulvaney had already received a coronavirus test, at the recommendation of the White House physician. The test, which has not been reported until now, was followed by a second this month after a niece with whom Mulvaney shares an apartment was around members of a Brazilian delegation who later tested positive for the virus.

Mulvaney is one of three President Trump confidants to get a coronavirus test while exhibiting no symptoms of the disease. And on Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced he tested positive despite being asymptomatic, declining to disclose how he was able to get tested in Washington on March 16.

The easy access Paul and other high-ranking politicians have gotten to coronavirus tests highlights the extent to which members of America’s elite continue to have greater access to medical care during the pandemic, even as federal officials emphasize that testing should be reserved for health care providers and people who are seriously ill. Even in the nation’s capital, hospitals are reporting a shortage of tests and the protective gear needed to administer them.

“It’s a horrible flouting of our public health recommendations,” Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Public Health, said in a phone interview.

In the cases of Mulvaney, Trump’s incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), White House medical staffers arranged for their tests on the grounds that they risked infecting the president. Both Meadows and Gaetz came into contact with someone at last month’s CPAC gathering who then learned he had contracted covid-19.

People close to Mulvaney and Meadows said it was necessary to get a test because they spend so much time with the president and other powerful lawmakers and advisers.

William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview, “We continue to emphasize that we test people who have a fever, and have some evidence of the lower-respiratory-tract infection.”

For individuals who might have been exposed to the virus through personal contact, Schaffner added, “The recommendation would be to continue and be very rigorous about social distancing, to shelter at home, to monitor yourself for symptoms, and to take your temperature twice a day.”

NBA players, other celebrities head to the front of the line for covid-19 tests

Meanwhile, the U.S. Capitol’s Office of Attending Physician has declined multiple test requests from senators and members of Congress because they did not show symptoms, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private medical consultations.

The Office of Attending Physician has applied a stricter criteria for testing than the White House medical office, according to a screen shot of its internal website obtained by The Post.

“At the OAP, individuals considered for testing must exhibit symptoms,” the site states. “They must have no alternative explanation for illness (such as influenza A), and they must have a nexus to risk.”

That statement was added to the website Monday, a day after Paul tested positive, amid growing concern inside the Capitol complex that the 57-year-old senator had either received special treatment from the doctor or had shown symptoms despite his public denials. Paul and his advisers have refused to say who provided the test, beyond that it was completed in Washington on March 16. An adviser to the attending physician did not respond to a request for comment on whether Paul had been tested there.

The statement also made clear that no exceptions have been made to the “exhibit symptoms” rule, and that anyone who receives a test should self-isolate while awaiting results, which Paul did not do.

“The OAP has never performed a test on an asymptomatic patient,” the statement read.

Paul, who has a damaged lung, defended his decision not to self-isolate in a statement Monday.

“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a T, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” Paul said.

Mulvaney received two tests — even though he never showed symptoms. One took place before the president went to India in late February, because Mulvaney was scheduled to go but felt sick.

He tested negative for the coronavirus but skipped the trip. After Mulvaney’s niece showed symptoms after being around Brazilians at Mar-a-Lago, Mulvaney consulted the White House medical office and received a second test.

Conoronavirus testing ramps up, but the supply chain is under strain

Even as some politicians are getting rapid diagnoses, local and state officials in the Washington area say they lack enough materials needed for coronavirus testing. Trump officials have said for weeks that tests should be widely available any day. But right now the country is testing at a rate of 1,220 per million residents — or 0.12 percent. South Korea is testing at a per capita rate more than five times that.

Even when a patient can get tested, delays in results have left some in limbo, unsure whether they have exposed friends, family and co-workers to the virus. One 27-year-old woman who was tested for the coronavirus at Washington’s MedStar Georgetown University Hospital did not learn her results for more than a week.

“President Trump was tested after me and got his results before me,” she said. “NBA players were tested after me, and they’ve gotten their results before me.”

Rachel Chason, Kyle Swenson and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.