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White House hit with fresh outbreak of coronavirus cases

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows greets supporters at a Trump rally in Michigan on Nov. 1. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The White House has been hit with a fresh wave of coronavirus infections, an administration official said Saturday, with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and five other Trump aides having received positive test results in the period around Election Day.

Meadows, who tested positive Wednesday, at first told others not to disclose his condition. But after his diagnosis became public late Friday, the official confirmed that a broader outbreak threatens to create a new crisis in the West Wing just as Meadows and other top aides are trying to help President Trump navigate a bitter loss at the polls to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.

Video of a Nov. 4 White House event where President Trump spoke shows chief of staff Mark Meadows in the crowd. Meadows has tested positive for the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, declined to name the affected aides or provide information about their conditions. In addition to the six White House staffers, a Trump campaign official said campaign adviser Nick Trainer has also tested positive.

The outbreak comes as coronavirus cases are spiking across the nation: Saturday brought more than 134,000 new cases — setting a new record for the fourth day in a row — and deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise. Biden may have won the presidency by relentlessly attacking Trump’s decision to downplay the severity of the virus and disregard basic advice from public health experts for combating a pandemic that so far has killed more than 237,000 Americans.

Meadows, for instance, has rarely worn a mask in public, has ridiculed Democratic governors for locking down bars, restaurants and other businesses and has fought with federal science advisers about the administration’s response to the pandemic.

The influence of health professionals such as Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, has steadily waned under Meadows’s management. And Meadows has supported Trump’s strategy of pressing to reopen schools and send people back to work, arguing last month on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “we’re not going to control the pandemic.”

A majority of Americans have disapproved of the president’s handling of the coronavirus almost from the start. As Election Day neared with the outbreak raging, some older voters, politically moderate women and other constituencies blamed Trump for doing too little to blunt it.

Declared the winner on Saturday, Biden has promised that, as president, he will listen to public health experts and try to bring the pandemic under control. Trump has not conceded the election, however, and his campaign issued a statement Saturday accusing Biden of “falsely posing” as the victor.

The White House outbreak is at least the third wave of infections to strike White House employees and residents. The first erupted in the days after a Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony honoring Trump’s most recent appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, which Fauci called a “superspreader event.”

Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron Trump all tested positive, and Trump was briefly hospitalized. Senior adviser Hope Hicks and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also were infected.

Trump plays down the pandemic after his hospital release

Two weeks later, at least five aides or advisers to Vice President Pence tested positive, including Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short.

Despite the repeated infections, Trump, Meadows and their allies have continued to flout public health guidelines, holding large indoor gatherings where few people wear masks or follow advice for social distancing. On election night, for instance, Trump hosted an event at the White House billed as a victory party where people mingled close together and few wore masks.

“The contrast is really disheartening between what we’re seeing at the White House and what we know to be critical to controlling the virus. As a scientist — and a parent — it’s particularly exasperating,” said Ben Sommers, a doctor who teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Kids are wearing masks for soccer outside and for hours a day in schools, and millions of children gave up trick-or-treating this year to avoid large crowds. Meanwhile, key White House leaders can’t bring themselves to follow those same guidelines,” Sommers said.

It is not clear when or how Meadows became infected. But it often takes several days after exposure to the virus before an infection can be detected through testing. Though Meadows tested positive on Wednesday, his diagnosis did not become widely known until late Friday, when it was first reported by Bloomberg News.

Many White House staffers are angry with Meadows for not disclosing his infection sooner, according to the administration official who confirmed the new infections. The official said top White House officials and Cabinet officers who had close contact with Meadows in the days around Election Day had been kept in the dark.

Meadows had traveled with Trump for whirlwind election rallies in several states during the week before his diagnosis. The stops included Wisconsin and Michigan, states where coronavirus cases are spiking.

Last Sunday, Meadows was photographed greeting supporters lined up along a barricade at a Trump rally in Opa-Locka, Fla. Meadows was a yard or so away from the crowd. Neither he nor many in the tightly packed group of supporters wore masks.

On Election Day, Meadows visited the campaign office with Trump, where he was photographed standing close to campaign and White House staffers. Later, he watched election returns with Trump in the family’s residence quarters and the Map Room. And in the wee hours after midnight, he was at the White House as Trump addressed supporters during an election night party in the East Room.

The event included a buffet where people could load their own plates with chicken wings and sliders, according to one person who attended. “It was basically like a large cocktail party,” the attendee said.

Those milling about included Cabinet officials, allies and donors. Meadows was in and out of the room but walked in with the Trump family just before the president spoke. He meandered toward the back of the room, speaking to a handful of reporters and standing amid the throng, the attendee said.

Later Wednesday, Meadows worked from campaign headquarters, but did not notify campaign staff that he had tested positive, officials said. Instead, he told only the president and Jared Kushner, officials said.

Meadows did not respond to calls seeking information about his diagnosis, symptoms and whereabouts. He was not seen at the White House on Saturday, as huge crowds gathered outside the gates to celebrate Biden’s victory.

Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.