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Contact Tracing Still Taking Place For Recent Trump Fundraiser

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump's doctor made a statement yesterday. He said the president can resume campaigning this weekend, which is barely a week after he tested positive for coronavirus. Health officials still have a lot of questions about the people he was close to on the day that he tested positive. He attended on that day a fundraiser in New Jersey. NPR's Joel Rose looks at what happened there.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: From the beginning, President Trump's fundraising trip to his golf club in New Jersey last Thursday did not go as planned. As the helicopter was about to leave the White House, officials got word that top adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive for the coronavirus. Here's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

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MARK MEADOWS: We discovered that right as Marine One was taking off. We actually pulled some of the people that had been traveling and in close contact.

ROSE: Hicks had traveled with the president to a rally in Minnesota and the debate in Ohio on Air Force One. Still, the White House determined the president wasn't a, quote, "threat," and that he was good to go. But public health experts say Trump should have been pulled from the trip, too. Lisa Lee is a former top scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who's now at Virginia Tech.

LISA LEE: The first step in all of this was to really quarantine immediately after finding out that they had been exposed.

ROSE: That was the first of several ways the Trump campaign put supporters at risk, Lee says. While there were coronavirus protocols for the fundraiser at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, they were aimed more at protecting the president than donors and staff. And according to public health experts, those measures were full of holes. Dozens of guests mingled with the president indoors without masks, some for the better part of an hour. And the campaign relied heavily on screening guests with rapid tests, which aren't always reliable.

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CHARLIE KOLEAN: Wow. So we got tested for COVID...

ROSE: Charlie Kolean is a Trump supporter from Texas who attended the fundraiser and posted videos on social media. The fundraiser really had three separate parts, with different precautions in place depending on how close the attendees got to the president. Kolean says it kicked off with drinks.

KOLEAN: Just picture it was a standard cocktail party. There was a bar there.

ROSE: This is where Kolean got his picture taken with the president. I asked him afterward how he could do that safely. He said it only took a minute.

KOLEAN: You did not get to shake his hand, and you stood 6 feet away from him when the photo was taken.

ROSE: Were you wearing a mask? Was the president wearing a mask?

KOLEAN: All the attendees were checked before entering the clubhouse for coronavirus, so they were not wearing masks. And the president was not wearing a mask.

ROSE: The campaign says that everyone was kept at least 6 feet away from the president, as the CDC recommends for social distancing. I talked to epidemiologist Lisa Lee about this, too. She says those guidelines are just that - guidelines.

LEE: We want to really be careful about thinking that there's some magic about that 6 feet.

ROSE: And Lee says it's troubling that guests were allowed to mix it up without masks indoors simply because they passed a rapid test because those tests have a high rate of false negatives.

LEE: No test is perfect, and that test, like every other imperfect test we have, likely missed some infections.

ROSE: Even more troubling, Lee says, was the second part of the fundraiser, when the really big donors gathered in another room at the clubhouse for a more private audience with the president.

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RICH ROBERTS: We met with him for about 45 minutes to an hour.

ROSE: Rich Roberts is a major Republican donor who lives in New Jersey. He's speaking here in a video posted by a local news outlet.

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ROBERTS: There were 19 of us, and we were in a table set up to make a rectangular formation. Here was President Trump, and I was directly across from him, over one seat.

ROSE: Roberts later clarified that he was sitting 10 feet from the president, but he also said they weren't wearing masks. And Lee, the epidemiologist, points out that infected particles can be recirculated in enclosed rooms.

LEE: If I were that person or one of those people, I definitely would be in quarantine.

ROSE: Roberts and Kolean both say they are quarantining at home. The third part of the fundraiser was held outdoors in a courtyard at the club. Here, the guests only had to get a temperature check and fill out a wellness questionnaire. Rick Mehta, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, was there.

RICK MEHTA: People were sitting, eating, having a very casual conversation, good time.

ROSE: Experts say there is less risk with outdoor events, but they caution that up to 40% of people infected with COVID have no symptoms and would not have been flagged by the screening process.

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KOLEAN: Hey, we're waiting on Marine One to lift off. Here we go. Look at this.

ROSE: After speaking for about an hour in New Jersey, President Trump headed back to Washington. A few hours later, Trump tweeted that Hope Hicks had, quote, "just tested positive," even though the White House knew before the president left for Bedminster. Shortly after that, Trump tweeted he had tested positive. Lisa Lee says this kind of behavior is problematic no matter who you are.

LEE: Anyone who's knowingly been exposed who does not go into quarantine really has no idea how - what lives they might put at risk.

ROSE: Public health officials haven't reported any positive tests among guests, but they caution that the incubation period is up to two weeks. President Trump now says he's ready to hold public events again. As for Vice President Joe Biden, he's only holding small campaign events and virtual fundraisers. Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.