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RJ White House correspondent faces coronavirus in the line of duty

Updated May 8, 2020 - 5:36 pm

WASHINGTON — On Thursday morning, Vice President Mike Pence delivered personal protective gear to a rehab facility in Alexandria, Virginia. As I waited for Pence to arrive, his spokeswoman, Katie Miller, answered a few questions.

She coughed, then quipped that she didn’t have the coronavirus. I shrugged off the remark.

A day later amid reports that a member of Pence’s team tested positive, President Donald Trump said: “She’s a wonderful young woman, Katie, she tested very good for a long period of time. And then all of the sudden today she tested positive. She hasn’t come into contact with me. She’s spent some time with the vice president. It’s the, I believe, press person.”

Miller, who is married to Trump whisperer Stephen Miller, spent some time with me, too. There was a velvet rope between us and close to six feet separation, give or take a foot, as we stood outside and waited for the vice president’s motorcade to arrive.

I had a mask on, although I probably pulled it down when I asked questions. I recall pulling down my mask when I asked Pence a question.

Like everyone else on the vice president’s staff and the vice president himself, Miller did not wear a mask.

Mayo mask controversy

Miller was well aware of the controversy. When Pence visited the Mayo Clinic during the previous week, he was criticized for violating the clinic’s mask policy. On Sunday, Pence told Fox News, “I didn’t think it was necessary, but I should have worn a mask at the Mayo Clinic.” He said he wore a mask when he visited a ventilator plant in Indiana.

But Thursday, Pence was back with a bare face as he carried boxes of equipment to the front door of the Woodbine Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center.

On Thursday night, comedian Jimmy Kimmel aired footage of the event and accused Pence of “pretending to carry empty boxes of PPEs into a hospital.” But the boxes Pence was carrying were full, and if Kimmel had been there, he would have seen Pence put his back into the exercise.

Pence was bare-faced, but he social-distanced, as did fellow members of the task force — Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service administrator Seema Verma and Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, the supply chain czar of the president’s coronavirus task force.

Woodbine Rehabilitation and Health Care Center executives also went without masks.

I hate wearing them. I feel uncomfortable breathing. I believe my voice is less strong. I only wear one because I don’t want to be shamed and I don’t want my colleagues to be blamed for any infections at the White House.

Blaming the media

As if to punctuate that point, Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, defended the lack of masks at Friday’s meeting between Trump and House Republicans, saying everyone in White House State Dining Room had been tested and suggested that nobody in the room had the virus “unless it’s someone in the media.”

Earlier I attended White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s daily briefing. No one from the press staff wore masks, and every member of the press corps did. I wanted to be bare-faced as they were, but I wore a mask for the team.

Like others, I loosened it when I hit my desk in the press work space.

I cling to the words of task force stars before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested wearing masks where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain in mid-April. I think fondly of task force maven Dr. Deborah Birx’s remarks, “if you’re never within six feet of any single individual, then you’ve controlled the virus.”

I still want to believe that’s true.

When I learned about Miller’s status, I got in touch with the White House and returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for an Abbott test. (I had symptoms in March and stayed home for two weeks, but was unable to get a test at the time.)

The Abbott test is supposed to issue a positive or negative finding within minutes. I was told as I submitted to the swabs that I would hear from the White House if I tested positive, probably in an hour or two, but not if I tested negative.

It has been two hours, but as happens when you cover the Trump White House, there’s always the possibility they just forgot about you.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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