News & Politics

How Is DC Contact-Tracing the Covid Cases From the White House Outbreak? An Explainer.

Warning: You might be depressed by the answers.

Photograph by Evy Mages

Since news of Hope Hicks’s and President Trump’s Covid cases broke last week, various administration officials have been flouting public health guidance on quarantining for 14 days after exposure—showing up to work at the White House (Kayleigh McEnany), at Walter Reed Medical Center (Mark Meadows), at the Justice Department (Bill Barr). This, while the number of positives keeps creeping up (cases linked to Trump and White House events such as the Rose Garden reception for Amy Coney Barrett now number at least 13.)

While some of the individuals in question were just in town for the weekend, many of the positive cases and close contacts work and live in Washington—they are our neighbors. How vulnerable does the White House outbreak leave the rest of us?

We put a few questions to DC officials today. The short answer: vulnerable.

Who is responsible for the contact tracing of people connected to the White House outbreak? 

DC is responsible, if the person who tests positive lives in DC, and, according to an official from Mayor Bowser’s office, obtains a test through their healthcare provider or at a community testing center. “Our law requires those healthcare providers to send that information to DC Health,” Mayor Bowser says, “and DC Health will follow its protocol for contact tracing.” So, DC would contact-trace for DC residents tested in DC.

But—the DC official says that the White House is handling its own testing. So, what if a DC resident tests positive from a White House test? “Any of the positive cases that they are testing and the positive results that they’re getting, they would be doing the contact tracing,” the official says.

In other words, if Massachusetts Avenue resident Kellyanne Conway was tested by a DC doctor, or at a city testing site, her contacts would be traced by the city. But if she got her positive result from the White House’s medical staff, her case wouldn’t be traced by the city.

“DC Health won’t be talking about specific White House cases,” Bowser says. Meanwhile, the White House’s tracing efforts have been described as “inept.”

What about DC residents in the White House orbit who have tested negative so far, but who have been in close contact with positive cases: Can DC officials order them to quarantine for 14 days per the current public-health guidelines?

They could—but only if the White House shares information, or if the person who tested positive had their test done in DC/with a DC doctor. “In order for us to legally enforce a quarantine, we must have confirmation of a close contact by the individual who cites it as a close contact,” says Health Department director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, “and confirmation of that individual’s positive test.”

In other words, a colleague of a White House aide with Covid could be ordered to quarantine by the District—but only if that White House aide lives in the District and got their results from a DC doctor/DC testing site. Same goes for a Congressional staffer who works for one of the Senators who has tested positive.

Is the White House providing test results to DC health officials?

No. The official says the DC health department is not privy to the results of any White House test. Throughout the pandemic, he says, the White House has been operating as a “sovereign institution.” The White House has not responded to multiple inquiries from Mayor Bowser, and has not provided results from their tests surrounding the Rose Garden ceremony.

Can the city stop anyone who has had exposure through White House events from coming into town?

It doesn’t sound like it. For example, it was reported that Attorney General Bill Barr, who attended the Rose Garden ceremony, went to a meeting at Justice on Friday (he has tested negative) and intends to come to work again mid-week. Asked if DC would require Barr to quarantine and keep him from coming to work downtown, Bowser says, “the White House enforces its policies, and that’s what we would expect to happen.”

How was the Rose Garden ceremony allowed to happen?

Federal government activities aren’t under the purview of DC Government, the official says, so there’s no way they could enforce city ordinances related to large events and mask wearing.



Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.