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Pence is putting others at risk by campaigning after coronavirus exposure, experts say

Vice President Pence speaks to supporters in Tallahassee on Saturday, the day officials announced that three members of his staff were infected with the novel coronavirus. Five of Pence's staff members and advisers are now known to have the virus. (Steve Cannon/AP)
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Vice President Pence headlined two rallies in Florida on Saturday as one of his closest advisers tested positive for the novel coronavirus, part of an aggressive campaign schedule that officials say will not be thwarted by his possible exposure to the dangerous pathogen.

Pence headed to Kinston, N.C., to give a speech Sunday after his chief of staff, Marc Short, entered isolation. The vice president then headed to Hibbing, Minn., on Monday for a rally. As he continued to travel this weekend, the number of his publicly known aides or advisers testing positive for the virus grew to five.

Asked whether Pence was putting others at risk by campaigning, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that “the short answer is yes.” Pence should receive frequent tests, maintain physical distance from others and wear a medical-grade N95 mask at all times, Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

“There’s ways to try to provide a measure of protection around the vice president or protect other people from the risk if the vice president does contract the infection, but they need to be very explicit about the risk that they’re taking,” he said.

The decision for Pence, who chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force, to keep traveling and interacting with others after being in close contact with infected people prompted anger and grave concern from public health experts while highlighting that Pence and President Trump routinely ignore recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Neither regularly wears a mask or maintains physical distance from other people.

Pence’s choice also stands in contrast to that of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris, who canceled several days of campaign travel this month after two people around her tested positive. Harris had not been in close contact with either of those people, a campaign aide said.

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The vice president and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for the virus on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, according to spokespeople. After Short tested positive Saturday, Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley said White House doctors had signed off on the vice president’s decision to continue traveling.

“While Vice President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr. Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the Vice President will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” O’Malley said in a statement.

Ten Democratic senators wrote Pence a letter urging him to stay away from the Senate’s confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Monday so as not to potentially infect others at the Capitol. A Pence aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about his schedule, said midday Monday that the vice president did not plan to attend the vote as he had initially hoped.

The White House has maintained that Pence is an essential worker as defined by the CDC and that his campaigning falls under that umbrella. While the CDC advises people to self-quarantine for 14 days after potential exposure to the coronavirus, it allows an exemption for “critical infrastructure workers” without symptoms as long as they wear a mask and practice social distancing.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Pence will maintain social distance while on the campaign trail and follow his doctors’ guidelines to wear a mask when not speaking publicly.

“Essential personnel, whether it’s the vice president of the United States or anyone else, has to continue on,” Meadows said.

That explanation was not enough for Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, who told “CBS This Morning” that it was “not a close call” that Pence should be quarantining.

“The CDC makes special dispensation for people whose work involves critical infrastructure,” Jha said. “So it’s not about essential personnel. Obviously, he’s vice president, that’s important. It’s about, are you doing things that are critically important for the health and well-being of the country. I don’t think any of us think campaigning, as important as it is, is critical infrastructure for our country.”

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Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Fox News on Sunday that Pence was “at very high risk” of infection and that a negative test should not provide complete reassurance.

“He likely was significantly exposed, and we know that a test is just one moment in time and that you can’t test yourself out of self-quarantine,” Adalja said.

Tests do not always detect the coronavirus in the first days of infection, and false negatives are possible. After several people in Trump’s orbit became infected with the coronavirus, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she tested negative four days in a row before announcing a positive result on Oct. 5.

Pence could become a vector of the coronavirus without experiencing symptoms, warned Rob Davidson, an emergency medicine doctor and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a group that promotes the expansion of the government health care coverage.

“It’s bad enough that during a massive nationwide increase in #COVID19 cases, Pence and Trump are traipsing about the country hosting #superspreader events with thousands packed together without masks,” Davidson wrote on Twitter. “It appears that Pence now wants to be an actual *human* SuperSpreader.”

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and health policy professor at George Washington University, stated her objections to Pence’s decision simply.

“At least two of @Mike_Pence’s close advisors, including his Chief of Staff, have tested positive for #covid19, yet he intends to keep traveling & interacting with others,” Wen tweeted Sunday. “He should be in quarantine. How can we ask our patients to follow public health guidelines when @VP won’t?”

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.