A member of U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s staff has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, briefly delaying his Friday flight to Iowa and prompting some fellow passengers on Air Force Two to disembark, according to a White House official.
Pence’s flight was delayed more than an hour on Friday morning and, according to press pool reports. Passengers who were Pence staff members appeared to disembark before departure. It was not immediately clear whether the infected staffer had been aboard Air Force 2 on Friday morning.
The news heightens fears of contagion to top officials like Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force which oversees the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, and who has resumed a robust travel schedule despite a rising national caseload.
On Thursday, a White House spokesperson said Pence and U.S. President Donald Trump tested negative for the novel coronavirus after a member of the U.S. military who works at the White House as a valet came down with the virus.
Trump is scheduled to meet face-to-face later on Friday with Republican members of Congress at the White House, according to the White House.
Pence was heading to Iowa on Friday to meet with faith leaders about holding “responsible” gatherings and to discuss the U.S. food supply at the headquarters for Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee Inc.
Trump on Friday said certain White House staff members have started wearing face masks, one day after the valet had tested positive.
WATCH l Tips for rewearing a mask:
Trump, asked whether those who serve him food would now cover their faces, told Fox News in an interview that such White House staff had made that change.
“They’ve already started,” he said on the network’s Fox and Friends morning program.
The White House on Thursday said Trump and Pence tested negative for the virus and were feeling well after the valet came down with the virus. It also said the two leaders would now be tested daily, versus weekly.
‘I don’t see it for myself’
Trump, who turns 74 next month, has said he would not wear a mask and has not publicly worn a mask to any of his events so far amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but told reporters this week that he tried some on behind the scenes during his visit to a Honeywell face mask factory in Arizona.
“As I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens … I don’t see it for myself, I just don’t,” Trump said in early April when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending widespread mask use to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The virus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China late last year, has killed more than 75,000 Americans and driven millions into unemployment as a result of lockdown measures to curb a rise in infections. Those measures are being eased in some states, but many are still requiring mask use.
Both Trump and Pence have drawn fire for not donning face masks, with critics arguing they are setting a bad example for Americans.
WATCH l FAQs about wearing a mask:
Pence did not wear a mask while visiting coronavirus patients during a recent visit to Minnesota’s famed Mayo Clinic, noting that he was tested frequently for the disease. But he later said he should have worn one, pointing out that it carries a symbolic weight as well.
The vice-president, who took over leadership of the White House coronavirus task force from the health secretary in late February, flew to Iowa on Friday to meet with faith leaders about holding “responsible” gatherings and to discuss the food supply at the headquarters for Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee Inc.
According to a White House official, a Pence staffer tested positive for the virus prompting officials to deplane Air Force 2 on Friday morning and briefly delay the planned takeoff. It was not immediately clear whether the staffer with the virus had been on board the plane.
Paul goes without mask, claims immunity
Trump attended a public event at the World War Two memorial later on Friday. He was scheduled to meet with Republican members of Congress at the White House, accoding to the White House.
The Republican president also told Fox News that he has not yet been tested for antibodies to the novel coronavirus but probably would be soon. Such a test could confirm previous exposure to the virus.
With Washington itself still under a stay-at-home order, senators who returned this week and were advised by the congressional physician to wear masks, maintain a distance of six feet and limit the number of staff on Capitol Hill.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of a small number of members of Congress to have contracted the virus and since recovered, declined to wear a mask.
“I have immunity,” he told reporters, per the Washington Post. “I’ve already had the virus. So I can’t get it again, and I can’t give it to anybody.”
While the 57-year-old Paul has a medical degree, having practiced as an ophthalmologist in the past, a consensus has yet to emerge on the extent or length of immunity concerning the novel coronavirus.
Nearly two-thirds of senators are over the age of 60 and with 28 over the age of 70, according to the Congressional Research Service, putting them in the age category often most at risk to COVID-19.
The House of Representatives, with nearly five times as many legislators as the Senate, has yet to return to Capitol Hill.