It was supposed to be a scene of celebration.
Instead, the Trump campaign’s election night watch party held in the White House East Room – with few masks and no social distancing – is being eyed as a potential coronavirus super-spreading event and yet another symbol of Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude toward a virus that is infecting more than 100,000 Americans a day.
Ben Carson, the secretary for housing and urban development, is the latest attendee to test positive, a department spokesman confirmed. The event has been under scrutiny since another attendee, the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, contracted the virus, which has now killed more than 237,000 people in the US alone.
Carson’s deputy chief of staff, Coalter Baker, said the secretary “is in good spirits” and “feels fortunate to have access to effective therapeutics which aid and markedly speed his recovery”.
The latest White House cluster comes just a month after Trump’s own diagnosis and hospitalization, and two weeks after several aides to the vice-president, Mike Pence, including his chief of staff, tested positive for the virus.
And it is not the first potential super-spreader event to take place at the White House – a crowded Rose Garden ceremony, at which Trump announced the supreme court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, also came under scrutiny in October after at least seven attendees tested positive.
The White House has remained secretive about outbreaks. Many White House and campaign officials, as well as those who attended the election watch party, were kept in the dark about the diagnoses, unaware until they were disclosed by the press.
That the virus would continue to spread in the White House has come as no surprise to public health officials who have balked at the White House’s lax approach.
“The administration was cavalier about the risks of the virus for themselves and for the country. And that’s one reason why we have so many cases,” said Dr Joshua Sharfstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health.
Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has said he has been avoiding the White House since August “because my impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
Trump had long claimed, without basis, that the virus was being hyped by Democrats to hurt his re-election chances and would miraculously “disappear” after 3 November.
Meadows in particular has long tried to play down the severity of the virus. He rarely wore a mask in public, except during the period immediately following Trump’s infection.
He was again without one during Tuesday evening’s East Room event, where more than 100 of Trump’s most loyal supporters, family members and cabinet secretaries gathered to watch the election results come in and see him deliver what they had hoped would be a victory speech.
While everyone who attended the East Room event had been tested in advance for the virus, there was no social distancing and minimal mask-wearing.
It was a festive atmosphere, with half-empty glasses of wine and other beverages strewn across cocktail tables in front of news cameras. Meadows, who spent time with Trump’s family beforehand, was seen working the room, including giving several fist-bumps to those in attendance, before Trump took the stage early Wednesday morning.
Carson was there, along with the health and human services secretary, Alex Azar – who did wear a mask.
Earlier that day, Meadows had also accompanied the president to his campaign headquarters in Virginia, where Trump received rousing cheers from several dozen staff and volunteers. Meadows did not wear a mask, nor did other White House staffers. Campaign aides largely did.
If Meadows tested positive Wednesday – as Bloomberg News reported – he would likely have been infectious during both events, said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist who teaches at George Mason University.
The White House did not respond to specific questions about the current outbreak, but said that contact tracing had been conducted by the White House Medical Unit, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“Appropriate notifications and recommendations have been made,” the White House said.
But Popescu called the party, in particular, “a ripe environment for transmission to occur”.
The Associated Press contributed reporting