Pandemic protocols vary from the White House to the Supreme Court as Trump pushes states to reopen

Pandemic protocols vary from the White House to the Supreme Court as Trump pushes states to reopen

WASHINGTON – As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared to take his first international trip in nearly seven weeks, his staff drew up a set of detailed "risk mitigation" steps to protect him and his entourage from infection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But when Pompeo boarded his flight Tuesday, he was not wearing a mask – one of the only people on the plane without one, according to reporters who were traveling with the secretary. A top State Department physician told reporters on Friday that masks would be used on the trip according to CDC guidelines, which calls for face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

Pompeo's decision to forgo a face covering highlights the mixed messages across the federal government as President Donald Trump pushes for states to ease stay-at-home restrictions and encourage Americans to get back to work.

The dangers of that have become clear even inside the White House, where two administration aides tested positive for coronavirus last week: a valet to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary.

Federal agencies in Washington seem to have a mishmash of protocols for employees who may soon find themselves back at their desks, even as coronavirus infections in the Washington region remain on the rise.

Mask, tests at the White House

At the White House, new rules were put in place on Monday, and expanded on Tuesday. The White House now administers daily coronavirus testing for people who come into contact with the president and mandates masks and social distancing, when feasible, for West Wing staff.

At a press briefing in the Rose Garden on Monday, administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and HHS testing czar Brett Giroir, wore masks, removing them only to speak. Reporters, seated in socially distanced folding chairs, kept their masks on as they took turns approaching fixed boom microphones to ask questions.

Trump did not wear a mask, and Pence did not attend the briefing. Asked whether he was keeping his distance from his No. 2, Trump said he had not seen the vice president since “the quarantine period” but that the two could talk on the phone.

Pentagon: Wear masks when 'practical'

At the Pentagon, officials are requiring cloth face masks inside the complex “to the extent practical” when people cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from one another.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wearing a Washington Nationals mask for protection from the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, walks from the Senate floor of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 12, 2020.

The military is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding frequent hand washing and disinfecting surfaces, such as keyboards and elevator buttons. In addition, teleworking has been encouraged to minimize face-to-face meetings.

Moreover, senior officials self-quarantine after coming in contact with people suspected of having the coronavirus infection. On Sunday, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, announced that he would quarantine himself after coming into contact with a family member who tested positive for COVID-19. Gilday has tested negative for the disease but remains isolated as a precautionary measure.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a meeting with President Donald Trump, senior military leaders and members of Trump's national security team in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Saturday, May 9, 2020, in Washington.

State Dept. rolls out 'stepwise' return to work plan

At the State Department, employees are not required to wear masks – at least not yet.

Dr. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for operations, said the agency has rolled out a "stepwise phased plan for return to work" that is based on trends in the Washington region and around the world, where thousands of staff are employed at U.S. embassies and consulates.

"Whether it’s in D.C. or around the world, we’re looking at where are we in the epidemiology curve and then taking an assertive but not overly aggressive approach to bringing people back," he told reporters in a May 5 briefing. "We don’t have a timeline established for that at this point."

Congress: Virtual testimony, limited work

At the Capitol, the House hasn’t been in regular session since March. The Senate is back to work – sort of.

On Tuesday, a health committee hearing on returning safely to work was held via videoconference. The chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and three of the four witnesses were participating under self-quarantine after coming into contact with infected individuals.

At that hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., blasted the Trump administration for withholding more detailed guidance from states about how to reopen their economies. Portions of the plan have been leaked, but officials have said it remains under review.

“The guidance you have provided is criminally vague,” Murphy told the head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, who said the new recommendations would be released “soon.”

Justices go remote in historic change

At the Supreme Court, the pandemic protocols have prompted the nine justices to conduct high-stakes oral arguments by telephone – a historic change for an institution that has resisted previous efforts to adopt greater transparency and technology advancements.

Initially, the high court initially closed its building in mid-March, conducting their private conferences remotely and postponing further hearings.

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien, right, listens as President Donald Trump meets with Republican lawmakers in the State Dining Room of the White House, Friday, May 8, 2020.

But on May 4, the justices began hearing cases again – via live audio for the first time in its 230-year history.

NASA looks at optimal air flow, industrial cleaning measures

At NASA headquarters, the space agency is using a “risk-based” approach to getting its staff back on-site, said spokeswoman Karen Northon.

The agency is “strongly recommending” that its employees wear a face covering when they're in public and will issue personal protective equipment to employees returning to work if they are in a high-risk or vulnerable group, and to those in offices where social distancing is not practicable, she said.

NASA also has established a “Clean Team Task Force,” she said, that is researching industrial sanitation measures to clean workspaces and ways to ensure optimal air filtration. The task force is looking at what's used in the hotel and airline industries, among other settings, to develop a benchmark and make recommendations to the agency’s leadership.

Homeland Security: Protocols depend on location

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said officials are examining which facilities and operations will return to normal and when. "Decisions are highly specific based on functions, duty, and location," the spokesman said.

A spokesman with the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to inquiries about what pandemic precautions they have in place.

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, Courtney Subramanian, Rich Wolf, Kevin Johnson


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