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Contact Tracing Questions Arise After Trump Tests Positive For The Coronavirus


President Trump tested positive for coronavirus early this morning. Hours before, he told an audience that the end of the pandemic is in sight. For now, his staff are making plans for him to remain at the White House while he and the first lady recover. We don't know for how long. The president has attended rallies and fundraisers all week on the campaign trail. He also works closely with senior administration officials and aides.

Dr. Ashish Jha is with us now. He is the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. Dr. Jha, thanks so much for being with us.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: You tweeted out, calling the situation a nightmare. Why?

JHA: Well, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the head of our nation, the head of our government, has been infected with a potentially deadly virus, and he is in a high-risk group. So that unto itself is a nightmare, and obviously, we all wish the president and the first lady a speedy recovery.

But, also, he has been around a lot of people over the last five, seven days. And certainly in the last couple of days, when he was likely infectious, he was around a lot of folks, including Vice President Biden. So this is going to take a very substantial contact tracing effort. I suspect many senior members of the government are going to have to go into quarantine. There's a lot of work ahead. This is going to be complicated. This is - while, of course, it's about the president; it's not just about the president.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that contact tracing. I mean, the president was at this fundraiser in New Jersey. He also had a rally in Duluth, Minn., yesterday. How do you even go about getting in touch with all those people and contact tracing for them?

JHA: So, yeah, you need to think about anybody who came in contact with the president. And the traditional metric CDC uses is within 6 feet for 15 minutes. The truth is, anybody who was on the airplane with him, anybody who's been in the White House with him. Somebody who attended a rally, who was, you know, a hundred yards away doesn't need to worry. But anybody who was in close contact with him for any extended period of time needs to be identified and quarantined and probably tested.

MARTIN: We know that even at the presidential debate the other night, the Trump family came in wearing masks, but then they promptly took them off. They didn't wear masks for the remainder. I mean, this is a president who has not prioritized wearing masks. At best, he's - his message on that has been mixed. Are we seeing the implications of that? I mean, it's hard to know how and why he got it. But just affirm for us how masks can be effective.

JHA: Yeah, so I have been - you know, I've been a big fan of testing, which the White House does do. But I have said testing alone is not enough. And anybody who was in close proximity to the president should absolutely be wearing a mask, and that has not been happening. And the point of other people wearing a mask is to protect him, and unfortunately, that has not happened. And we don't know how he was infected. I don't want to blame anybody at this moment.


JHA: But it's very distressing to see the president of the United States get infected from what is a disease that we know how to largely prevent spread of.

MARTIN: What should this period of time look like? Whether we call it isolation or a quarantine, when he is at home at the White House, who should he see and not see?

JHA: Yeah, so he should absolutely be in isolation. He should not be seeing, really, anybody else. Obviously, the first lady would be fine. But the bottom line is that, again, we're going to hope that he has a very mild course and does great, but it may take several days before he develops symptoms. And as we saw with Prime Minister Johnson, it can take, you know, five, 10 days before the real severe symptoms come on. So we're going to hope that this goes smoothly, but I'm worried about the next week ahead.

MARTIN: Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. Thank you so much.

JHA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.