- The CDC director has cleared Vice President Mike Pence to participate in Wednesday's debate. Pence's own physician has cleared him too.
- According to the CDC's own guidelines, Pence should still be in quarantine, after being in close contact with multiple people who tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week.
- At Judge Amy Barrett's Supreme Court nomination ceremony on September 26, Pence was sitting — maskless — in front of Utah Senator Mike Lee and across from both Melania Trump and Kellyanne Conway. All 3 have tested positive for the virus.
- Even though Pence has tested negative so far, the coronavirus's incubation period can be as long as 14 days.
- While plexiglass will separate Pence from Kamala Harris at the debate, experts say the barriers would be mostly useless in preventing the spread of the microscopic, coronavirus-laden aerosols that can linger in the air.
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Wednesday night's vice presidential debate should only be happening virtually, if it is to happen at all.
Numerous White House and GOP officials who Vice President Mike Pence has recently been in contact with have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days, which means he could be unknowingly spreading the coronavirus to others right now, and he should be in quarantine.
So far, Pence has tested negative for the virus, as has his rival for the debate, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris.
But the fact remains that Pence was in close contact with dozens of people who've tested positive in recent days — not just President Trump.
At least 34 White House staffers, bodyguards, family members, as well as pastors, journalists, senators, advisors, and other people in Pence's immediate orbit have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past week, according to Politico. And Judge Amy Barrett's Supreme Court nomination ceremony on September 26 in the White House Rose Garden, which Pence attended, is looking more and more like a superspreader event.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 14-day quarantine for anyone with known coronavirus exposure. But after consulting with White House physicians, CDC director Robert Redfield issued a memo Tuesday clearing Pence for the debate. Pence's own doctor, too, said in a memo Tuesday that Pence "is encouraged to go about his normal activities and does not need to quarantine."
But per the CDC's own guidelines, Pence should be in quarantine — not talking for 90 minutes, inside, without a mask, in a room full of debate attendees.
This is at least the second time during the pandemic that Pence has broken this simple disease-fighting quarantine protocol, which can save lives, by reducing the number of vulnerable people who come in contact with the virus. The first was when both he and President Trump could've easily been exposed to the virus at the White House in May, as Pence's press secretary, and members of the Secret Service then tested positive for the virus.
"It is irresponsible for VP Pence to debate Senator Harris in person tonight, and it is unfortunate that the director of the CDC has chosen to overrule his own agency's guidelines," Angie Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, tweeted Wednesday.
"And lest anyone think I'm being partisan or political, I think that Joe Biden should also be following these guidelines. He should likewise quarantine until October 13th," she added.
Former Vice President Biden debated Trump on September 29, two days before the president tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The coronavirus typically incubates for between 2 and 14 days before people know they have it
Photos from the Rose Garden Supreme Court nomination ceremony reveal Pence was sitting, maskless, directly in front of Utah Senator Mike Lee. Three seats to Lee's right was North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis. Diagonally across sat former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and just behind her was the president of Notre Dame, Reverend John Jenkins. All four of those people, and many more from the garden ceremony, have since tested positive for COVID-19.
It's possible that Pence was infected on September 26 and has still not tested positive. Or, he might've been exposed more recently, before some of the newly-confirmed test results came back.
What's more, due to the woeful contact tracing and masking efforts at the White House, it's currently impossible to know who might've infected whom first, and when.
The White House has relied largely on daily rapid tests alone to ensure staff and event attendees are COVID-19 free, generally forgoing the distancing and masking measures. These rapid tests generally return results in about 15 minutes, but the CDC says such tests are "generally less sensitive than viral tests," and the FDA cautions that any negative rapid-test should be confirmed with a laboratory result.
"The White House's testing strategies have come under concern, too, because they're using less-sensitive rapid tests," Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at University of California, San Francisco, told Business Insider. "So Pence could've unknowingly been in contact with people who are positive, but asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic."
'You could actually be testing negative while you actually are positive'
The CDC (and most other public health agencies around the world) use quarantining to keep people "who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others."
This is especially important for the coronavirus, which spreads easily between people who aren't showing symptoms. It's critical, then, for people to stay home when they've been exposed to a sick person, even if they themselves aren't feeling ill.
On average, it takes about four to five days after getting infected with the virus to show symptoms of illness, but the incubation period can be anywhere from two to 14 days, which is why the recommended quarantine period lasts that long.
"The important thing to remember is that even if you don't have symptoms … you can still be infectious and feel fine," epidemiologist and Virginia Tech Professor Lisa Lee, who spent 14 years working at the CDC previously, told Insider. "You could actually be testing negative while you actually are positive. And some of that time, you're infectious, and you could infect other people."
Trump tested positive five days after the Barrett event, with many other officials announcing positive tests soon after him. White House Spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany tested positive for the virus on Monday, "after testing negative consistently," she said in a tweet.
"There's all this time where you don't know you're infected, but you could still potentially infect other people," Lee said. "If you've been exposed, get into quarantine."
Redfield cited the vice president's repeated negative tests, and the fact that Pence had not been in close contact with anyone with coronavirus two days prior to their diagnosis, as the basis for his clearance.
'Mostly useless' plexiglass will separate Pence from Harris
Pence will face Harris Wednesday night through a couple of plexiglass barriers — additional protective measures against the virus approved by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
But experts don't think the plexiglass is very likely to protect Pence, Harris, debate moderator Susan Page, or any of the debate's other attendees, if the virus is indeed lurking around.
"Those barriers really don't do anything," John Lednicky, an aerobiologist at the University of Florida, told Business Insider.
That's because when the candidates begin speaking, they will expel both large droplets and smaller particles called aerosols.
Aerosols are small and very lightweight; as a result, they can hang suspended in the air for minutes to hours. Lednicky authored a study earlier this summer that showed that coronavirus-laden aerosols can travel as far as 16 feet indoors. The findings are not yet peer-reviewed, but they have led Lednicky (and many other virus experts) to agree that a plexiglass barrier won't stop these particles from traveling.
This will be especially true when the candidates take off their masks to debate.
The risk of infection is, however, lower in a building with good air circulation.
So if the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall, where the debate is to be held, gets ventilated properly, the aerosols could be circulated outside and new air could be brought in, reducing the volume of any virus around.
But Lednicky said that if, conversely, the auditorium's air quality is poor, "the risk gets higher and higher and higher over a period of time" as aerosols build up in the environment.
A better idea, he said, if this debate absolutely must be done in-person, would be to get it outside.
Vice President Mike Pence's staff did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Susie Neilson contributed reporting.
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