By Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House reporter is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus, the White House Correspondents Association said on Monday, raising questions about the viability of press briefings that gather dozens of journalists and Trump administration officials in a single room each day.
In a statement, the association did not disclose the name of the individual but said it has been in contact with the White House physician and the journalist’s news organization.
“We have been in constant contact with the White House Correspondents Association and we continue to discuss various options as the situation evolves,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “We have been working together very well, with the shared goal of everyone’s health & safety, while responsibly getting information out to the public.”
The news comes a day after Republican Rand Paul became the first U.S. senator to test positive for the virus, raising the specter of a worsening outbreak in the Washington D.C. area, which has so far been spared the brunt of it.
The pandemic, with epicenters in New York, California and Washington state, has killed at least 506 people in the United States and sickened more than 43,000, leading state governors to order millions of Americans to stay at home and threatening to throw many more out of work.
It also called into question the durability of the daily coronavirus briefing, which usually features President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence squeezed onto a small stage surrounded by an ever-changing cast of top officials.
No senior administration officials have been diagnosed with the virus. Trump tested negative after cases among several members of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s delegation, hosted by Trump at his Florida club, were made public. Pence also announced a negative test result after his office said a staff member has been diagnosed.
Some measures have been taken to ensure greater safety during the news conferences. Last week, the WHCA limited the number of journalists able to participate and announced further cuts to boost spacing between reporters on Monday. Officials also conduct routine checks on journalists’ temperatures before they attend the daily sessions.
But critics argue the lack of adequate spacing endangers officials, puts journalists at risk and sets a bad example for Americans being urged to forgo gatherings of more than 10 people to avoid spreading the virus.
Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did not mince words in an interview with Science Magazine posted on Sunday.
“I keep saying, ‘Is there any way we can get a virtual press conference?’” he told the magazine. “Thus far, no. But when you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So, I’m going to keep pushing.”
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Sandra Maler and Dan Grebler)