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On Monday, President Donald Trump returned to the White House after spending the weekend in the hospital being treated for COVID-19. Nearly a dozen members of the president’s circle have also tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days, heightening alarm that scores of non-political White House employees are now at risk of exposure.
“There [are] about 90 of them,” Kate Andersen Brower, author of The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, said in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition on Wednesday. “You have butlers, ushers, painters, engineers, plumbers. It’s a huge universe of people that most people don’t even know exists at the White House.”
Brower, who interviewed more than 50 White House staff members for her book, said the people who work most closely with the first family are “the people you’d be the most concerned about. And primarily they’re the butlers and the housekeepers on the second floor of the White House.”
It remains unclear to what extent staff may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Not every member of the White House residence staff has direct contact with the first family. Asked Sunday if the White House would say how many staffers have been infected, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany — who announced her own positive test on Monday — said it would not, citing privacy concerns.
The residence has had “hospital grade disinfection policies” in place since March, according to a statement released Tuesday by the White House, and since April, residence staff have been required to wear masks at all times. The staff that has direct contact with the first family is tested daily for the virus, and support staff are tested every 48 hours, according to the statement.
“With the recent positive results of the President and First Lady, staff wear full PPE and continue to take all necessary precautions, which include updated procedures to protect against cross contamination,” the White House said.
But Brower said that’s not enough.
“This is still putting them at risk,” she said. “These are people who feel a great deal of pressure to work. They have mortgages to pay. So it is reckless to put them in this position.”
Brower said these jobs aren’t political: They’re staff members who stay in their positions for decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
“They are so dedicated to the president, whoever the president is,” Brower said. “They serve from one administration to the next, regardless of party. And I’ve interviewed several of them in the past couple of days — several former workers — and they’re very concerned for their friends who are still working in the White House.”
Concern is growing for members of the Secret Service, too, who are similarly in close contact with the First Family. On Sunday, at least two agents were sealed inside an SUV with the president as he drove outside the hospital to wave to supporters. He wore a mask, and the agents wore masks and protective smocks.
“Agents are already worrying about guns and knives and bombs,” J.J. Hensley, a novelist who used to work for the Secret Service, told NPR on Tuesday. “Now they have to worry about COVID-19.”
Ziad Buchh and Catherine Whelan produced and edited the audio version of this story.