Mar 14, 2020 - Health

Pence tells White House staff to avoid physical contact

Mike Pence. Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence sent White House staff an email Saturday afternoon recommending "social distancing" and to "avoid physical contact" to keep themselves and their colleagues safe from the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: This is the first staff-wide email Pence has sent across the complex during his time as vice president — and is the latest sign the White House is shifting its posture against the pandemic.

  • As recently as Thursday, Pence, who is leading the President Trump's task force to combat COVID-19, told CNN he was still shaking hands with people at the White House.
  • On Friday before the nation's TV cameras, Trump repeatedly shook hands with industry CEOs during a live press conference in the Rose Garden.
  • But on Saturday the president and his team began modeling different behavior — in line with public health official recommendations. Trump tweeted "SOCIAL DISTANCING!", said he'd finally been tested for the coronavirus, suggesting that people should be cautious about shaking hands.
  • Also on Saturday, for the first time a White House physician scanned journalists' foreheads with a thermometer before they could join the White House press briefing.

Details: Pence wrote in his email to White House staff that "with additional cases throughout the National Capital Region, it's imperative each one of us do our part to take the proper precautions to keep ourselves and our colleagues safe," according to a copy of the email obtained by Axios.

  • Pence repeated advice from "healthcare experts on the Task Force" to clean hands often, clean and disinfect personal work stations and "commonly touched items" and to "limit large in-person gatherings" and to "stay home if you're sick!"

Pence told White House staff that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends home-quarantine "only for those who have had close (within 6 feet) prolonged (>10 minutes) contact with a symptomatic (cough, fever, etc.) COVID-19 patient, or their respiratory droplets."

  • "This excludes casual, limited interactions such as handshakes, photographs, etc.," Pence added in the email.

Between the lines: The White House has released a memo from Trump's doctor saying that he learned of two Mar-a-Lago guests who interacted with the president and later tested positive for the coronavirus.

  • The White House physician, Sean Conley, wrote there is no reason for Trump to home-quarantine because his interactions are considered "low risk" for transmission of the virus.
  • Trump's exposure to the first individual was "extremely limited (photograph, handshake)" and his exposure to the second individual, while longer, happened when the person exhibited no symptoms of the coronavirus, according to Conley's memo.

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Why it matters: It's a significant milestone that is emblematic of the erosion of traditional norms regarding interactions between the White House and the press corps under the Trump administration.

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