WASHINGTON/WILMINGTON, Del. — US Vice President Mike Pence planned to press ahead with campaigning on Sunday, visiting the battleground state of North Carolina after multiple aides tested positive for COVID-19, keeping the pandemic front and center in the presidential race.
With nine days to go before the Nov. 3 election in which Democrat Joe Biden is challenging Republican President Donald Trump, the White House cited Pence's status as an "essential worker" as justification for his travel despite exposure to his chief of staff, Marc Short, who tested positive on Saturday.
Multiple other senior aides to Pence also tested positive for COVID-19, the White House chief of staff said, as new nationwide infections soared to record numbers in recent days amid a pandemic that has killed 225,000 Americans.
It marked the latest coronavirus infections in the White House, which have included Trump, first lady Melania Trump, their son Barron and numerous aides and associates.
The new infections offered a reminder of the way Trump—who was hospitalized for three nights this month after contracting COVID-19—and those around him have downplayed the advice of public health experts to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines to stem COVID-19 transmission.
In addition to dominating the campaign policy debate—with Trump insisting the United States is "rounding the turn" on the crisis while Biden has blasted Trump's disjointed response—the pandemic has changed Americans' voting habits, with 58.7 million ballots already cast.
The pandemic has upended campaign traditions and its effects still are being felt. Americans may find themselves waiting days or potentially weeks to know who won as election officials count tens of millions of mail-in votes.
Trump is due to campaign in the New England states of New Hampshire and Maine on Sunday. Biden has no campaign events scheduled for Sunday.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that White House doctors have cleared Pence to travel after Short tested positive. Pence is scheduled to address rallies in Kinston, North Carolina, later on Sunday and in Hibbing, Minnesota, on Monday.
While Biden holds a wide lead in national opinion polls, polls show closer contests in those two key states.
Devin O'Malley, a spokesman for the vice president, said late on Saturday that Pence and his wife tested negative.
Asked on CNN's "State of the Union" why Pence was not following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to quarantine for 14 days after such exposure, Meadows on Sunday cited the vice president's status as "essential personnel."
Meadows said Pence would continue to campaign and speak at rallies.
Meadows declined to say whether Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force, would be tested daily going forward, but did say "we do test on a regular basis."
Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, took four days off the campaign trail earlier this month after her communications director tested positive for COVID-19.
Speaking in Detroit as she campaigned in the battleground state of Michigan, Harris criticized Pence for continuing to travel, saying, "He should be following the guidelines."
Trump has mocked Biden for wearing a protective mask and has addressed packed rallies in which many of his supporters did not wearing masks.
'A free society'
Asked why the Trump campaign is not requiring people attending rallies to wear masks, Meadows said the campaign offers masks to attendees but, "We live in a free society."
"We're not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," Meadows added.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who himself caught COVID-19 and was hospitalized for a week after spending several days at the White House without wearing a mask, on Sunday said he was "surprised" Pence would continue campaigning.
"Everybody's gotta put the health of the people they're going to be in touch with first," Christie told ABC's "This Week" program.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Sandra Nelson of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital said it appeared that Pence would be at high risk for becoming infected and transmitting infection.
"With multiple members of his office testing positive this would be considered a work-based cluster. Anytime there is a cluster like this I would advise that the entire office transition to remote work for 14 days," Nelson said.
Ahead of Trump's arrival in the state, an influential newspaper in New Hampshire with a record of endorsing Republican presidential candidates endorsed Biden on Sunday.
"America faces many challenges and needs a president to build this country up. This appears to be outside of Mr. Trump's skill set," the New Hampshire Union Leader said in an editorial.
The United States set a single-day record of more than 84,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, with the spike in infections hitting election swing states Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. — Reuters