Mike Pence was unmasked in Iowa on Friday, attending two events without covering his face, even though public health officials say masks slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus and one of the vice president’s aides tested positive for Covid-19 just before he departed Washington.
Two days later, the recklessness of that behavior came into sharper focus as Bloomberg News reported that Pence had decided to self-isolate at his home in Washington over the weekend — skipping a White House meeting with military leaders on Saturday — because his press secretary, Katie Miller, had tested positive for the virus on Friday. Miller did not accompany Pence to Iowa, but if his exposure to her before the trip made his self-isolation necessary the next day, that made his decision to spend Friday meeting at least 19 officials, food industry executives and religious leaders in Iowa, unmasked, all the more questionable.
What’s more, a Des Moines Register live stream of the second event Pence attended on Friday, a roundtable discussion with food industry leaders at Hy-Vee corporate headquarters in West Des Moines, showed that all five of the invited guests arrived wearing masks but were asked to remove them shortly before the vice president joined them on stage.
The vice president’s office declined to tell The Intercept who the woman was, but Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Register reported later that a Trump administration official said the woman was “an advance staffer,” who had been dispatched from Washington to manage set-up for the event.
Two of those executives, Ken Sullivan of Smithfield Foods and Noel White of Tyson Foods, run meatpacking plants where hundreds of workers have contracted Covid-19, including a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa where more than a third of the workforce — 1,031 people — has tested positive and at least three workers have died. The Tyson plant in Waterloo was reopened on Thursday following an executive order from President Donald Trump that designated the meat supply “critical infrastructure.”
The strange request to the executives to remove their masks underscored just how committed the White House is to ignoring federal health advice intended to slow the spread of the pandemic coronavirus.
Although the vice president appeared to follow social distancing guidelines during the discussion, he did not wear a mask, nor did any of the officials who accompanied him on Air Force Two from Washington: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Iowa’s two Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. The Des Moines Register reported that, before the event, “staffers with gloves and masks took the temperatures of people who entered the building one at a time.” Video of the hall showed that very few of the people in the audience were wearing masks.
After the event, at which the chief executive of Smithfield Foods choked up when mentioning the death of a worker from Covid-19, the union that represents Iowa meat-packers, who have been forced back to work by an executive order from the president despite outbreaks at their plants, suggested that it would have been more useful for Pence, Perdue, Grassley and Ernst to have worked a shift alongside them. “They should work in the same conditions and under the same fear that our members and their fellow Iowans work under every day,” the United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement.
Video of the earlier event attended by the vice president, a meeting with Iowa faith leaders to discuss the planned reopening of places of worship, showed that just one participant, Rabbi David Kaufman, wore a mask.
Kaufman told Pence that his community was not ready to return to in-person services, partly because of the importance of singing in their services, which spreads even more respiratory droplets than speaking.
When he was asked last week why he had refused to wear a mask at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Pence argued that the precaution was unnecessary for anyone, like him, who is tested so regularly that he can be sure that he is not infected with the virus, and so cannot not spread it to anyone else.
That, however, relies on the testing being, as the president has claimed, “perfect,” which it most definitely is not. In fact, the new rapid-response Abbott ID NOW test kit for Covid-19 used in the White House produced false negatives nearly 15 percent of the time in research conducted in April, as the director of the National Institutes of Health reminded senators on Thursday.
Even more reliable testing that uses invasive nasal swabs and takes longer to get results can produce some false negatives. “An infected person could get a so-called ‘false negative’ test result if the swab missed the virus, for example,” Harvard Medical School’s Coronavirus Resource Center notes. “We also don’t yet know at what point during the course of illness a test becomes positive.” False negatives also appear more likely for people who are carrying the virus but have no symptoms.
That means that someone like Pence could go out into the world with a false sense of security after testing negative and unwittingly infect someone else by not wearing a mask while speaking loudly enough to spray the virus in salivary droplets on to their face.
That was theoretically possible last week, when Pence was the only person at the Mayo Clinic not following its mandatory mask-wearing policy, but it was even more obviously so on Friday when his press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive for the virus just one day after she had tested negative.
No less an authority on science than President Donald Trump noted on Friday that Miller’s different results on consecutive days indicated a problem with “the whole concept of tests.” Trump, however, was deeply confused as to what, exactly, the problem was with trying to use testing alone to construct a virtual virus-free bubble around him.
While the president suggested, wrongly, that the only possible explanation was that Miller had somehow contracted the virus overnight, the fact is that her positive test, along with that of a White House valet the day before, exposes the absurdity of the president refusing to wear a mask or let anyone around him do so.
By prioritizing his immense vanity, or a fear of looking weak, or being laughed at, or a desire to downplay the severity of the crisis over his own health and that of his vice president, aides and followers, the president is not just failing to model good behavior, he is actively discouraging it, and so helping the virus that’s killed at least 77,000 Americans to threaten the lives of many more.
Last Updated: Tuesday, May 12, 11:26 a.m. PDT
This article was updated on Saturday with a new headline; on Sunday, to note that Vice President Mike Pence reportedly entered self-isolation after his trip to Iowa; on Tuesday, with new information on the identity of the woman who instructed executives to remove their masks.