Donald Trump 'Put Lives at Risk' During Walter Reed Drive-By—Here's Why it Was So Dangerous

TOPSHOT - US President Trump waves from the back of a car in a motorcade outside of Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on October 4, 2020. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday, amid his own personal battle with COVID-19, President Donald Trump went on a drive-by past supporters in a hermetically-sealed SUV. The president, who announced his diagnosis early Friday morning and has spent the past few days in the hospital for treatment, waved to fans from the vehicle while wearing a mask. He was accompanied by two Secret Service agents, also wearing masks.

Understandably, this act garnered lots of opinions online—including from those in the medical community. James Phillips, MD, an attending physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where Trump is being treated, spoke out on Twitter about the outing, and he didn’t hold back.

“Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” he wrote. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”

Dr. Phillips followed that up with another tweet. “That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack,” he wrote. “The risk of COVID19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.”

He wasn’t the only doctor sharing thoughts on the ride on Twitter. “So massively irresponsible. And another reason to question whether he is capable of making sound decisions at this time,” Bob Wachter, MD, chair of the University of California San Francisco's Department of Medicine, wrote.

Zeke Emanuel, MD, vice provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, called the move, “shameful,” on Twitter, adding, “Making his Secret Service agents drive with a COVID-19 patient, with windows up no less, put them needlessly at risk for infection.”

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere later said in a statement to CNN that “appropriate precautions were taken in the execution of this movement to protect the president and all those supporting it, including personal protective equipment. The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do.”

While many doctors are speaking out against the move, it’s understandable that you might have questions about how bad it is for a COVID-positive patient to do something like this, as well as whether riding in a car with someone with COVID-19 is OK. Here’s what you need to know.

How bad was this, really?

Here's the thing: Even though everyone in the car was masked, doctors still say this act was pretty bad. “COVID-19 is very contagious and there is a risk of transmission, even if everyone is wearing a mask,” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health.

That ruling still holds, even if the president had previously been around those same people in the hospital (so, if he were accompanied by the same Secret Service agents that see him every day). Dr. Watkins says it “doesn’t matter” if a COVID-19 patient has already been around the same people before.

William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, offers the following advice to Health for this kind of thing: “Don’t do this.”

What should you do about being around others if you have COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that patients with a confirmed case of COVID-19 stay home, except to get medical care. The organization also has these specific recommendations:

  • Stay in a separate room from other household members, if possible
  • Use a separate bathroom, if possible
  • Avoid contact with other members of the household and pets
  • Don’t share personal household items, like cups, towels, and utensils
  • Wear a mask when around other people, if you are able to

The CDC also recommends that people with COVID-19 “avoid public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.”

As for car rides with other people, it’s best to avoid them, if possible, Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. “If you’re going to the hospital or to seek medical care, that’s usually the exception we would grant for someone who has an active case of COVID-19 that is contagious,” he says.

Valerie Fitzhugh, MD, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Pathology at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, also encourages against any non-essential travel by COVID-19 patients. "I discourage any unnecessary travel by a patient during an active COVID-19 infection because the close quarters of a vehicle put others at risk, even while masked," she says.

If you do have to be in the car with a patient who has COVID-19, or if you have COVID-19 and need someone to drive you to get medical care, Dr. Adalja says the windows should be open and you should all be wearing masks. “But outside of emergency situations, this is not recommended,” he says.

Overall, isolation is crucial to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If you have COVID-19, the more you can isolate yourself from friends and family in your own dwelling, the better it is,” Dr. Schaffner says. “It’s best to confine yourself to your room, get food at the door, go to the bathroom when nobody else is there, and then disinfect the room as much as possible afterward.”

Dr. Schaffner is especially concerned about the message Trump’s ride sends to the public. “Other people who are in quarantine are going to start to push back,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘The president was able to leave, why can’t I?’”

But doctors stress that personal responsibility is crucial when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19 when you’re infected with the virus. “If you are infected, you need to be responsible,” Dr. Watkins says. “Avoid others and social distance as much as possible”—that includes sticking to all quarantine guidelines. "Quarantine is essential to reduce the spread," Dr. Fitzhugh says.

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