Still: It’s probably not simple household spread. For one thing, all these people don’t actually live together. “I think it’s definitely not a classic case of household spread because it’s not a classic household,” says William Hanage, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The White House is a big house.”
On Friday afternoon, the news shifted, and the evidence against household spread got stronger. Utah Senator Mike Lee announced that he, too, was positive for Covid-19. So did John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University. So did Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel. So did three journalists who cover the White House. What they all (except maybe one of the reporters) had in common with Hicks and the Trumps was a singular event: the announcement of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden of the White House. If that’s where they all got it, the announcement could have been one of those dangerous coincidences where perfect conditions for transmission of the disease come together with one of the 20 percent of individuals whose bodies are, for unknown reasons, really good at giving the virus to other people. “At the moment, seeing that there’s this common link of one event among these people is pointing in the direction of that being potentially a superspreading event. But I think we still need some more information,” Jenkins says.
That’s going to be tough to get. Dozens of people attended that event, and there have been fund-raisers (without masks or social distancing, indoors) and rallies before and since. “Were they all infected by a single highly infectious person on Saturday? It’s possible. It’s also possible there were multiple infected people at that event,” says Marm Kilpatrick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The pictures I’ve seen of the Barrett announcement show dozens, maybe low hundreds of people, almost none of them wearing masks, sitting elbow to elbow with each other, and talking, hugging, and interacting before and after.”
“It’s easy to speculate,” Kilpatrick continues, “but one would need a huge amount of information and data. And even with all of it, it’s unlikely one could make a strong case about who infected whom.”
It’s a little easier, though, to speculate about how it all happened. The White House isn’t just big, as Hanage says. When it comes to a virus like this one, it’s also porous.
Not only has the White House failed to implement an NBA-style bubble, Trump’s campaign for a second presidential term has pressed forward with an aggressive campaign schedule, flying around the country to attend large events, many of them indoors, packed with throngs of maskless supporters. Such behavior flies in the face of what public health experts have been urging for months: Wear masks, avoid crowds, stay at least six feet away from people outside your household, open windows, don’t linger in poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. Each behavioral adjustment chips away at the risks of catching and spreading the coronavirus. Layer enough protections on top of each other, it’s possible to drive that risk, if at least not to zero, to something approaching it.
The White House’s strategy has, in contrast, focused on testing. Everyone in the president’s orbit reportedly gets regularly screened for the virus (though the Daily Beast reports that implementation has been casual at best). Trump himself has said part of the reason he doesn’t wear a mask is because “everyone’s tested” before they see him. But tests capture just a single snapshot in time, and they’re not infallible.