The vice presidential debate is set to take place on Wednesday night, less than a week after President Trump tested positive for COVID-19. But with more than 20 cases of the virus now linked to the White House, infectious disease experts are characterizing the decision to proceed in person as not only misinformed but reckless.
Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California will face off on a stage in Salt Lake City, seated more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. The Commission on Presidential Debates shared additional safety measures that will be taken, including COVID-19 testing and mandatory mask wearing.
But infection prevention experts say the plans remain strikingly inadequate. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and associate research scientist at the Center of Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University School of Public Health, suggests that it’s tough to fully capture in words what she felt upon learning of the safety protocol. “I laughed, in a hopeless, bitter, heartbroken way,” says Rasmussen. “In other words, LOLSOB.”
Video: Vice presidential debate precautions include plexiglass, social distancing
Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention specialist at George Mason University, felt similarly dismayed. “I was disappointed to see that the debate was not moved to a virtual setting considering Vice President Pence should be in quarantine following his exposure,” Popescu tells Yahoo Life. “Moreover, a small plexiglass barrier and spacing is not enough for this venue.”
Popescu says that the plexiglass — which Pence’s team initially refused — provides some protection against respiratory droplets, but overall is akin to “infection prevention theater.” Rasmussen agrees and says that without a mask, the vice president is still putting individuals around him at risk. “Mike Pence should be quarantining until at least Oct. 13 due to repeated close contact with people in the White House who have since tested positive,” says Rasmussen.
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has directed anyone who has been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 to quarantine for at least 14 days, defining close contact as “within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.” On top of President Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis, others with whom Pence has likely had contact within the past week include White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway and campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Yahoo Life Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass suggests that it was Pence’s responsibility to remove himself from the equation. “Everyone now has to judge their own safety against the risk he presents,” says Kass. “We all objectively saw him get exposed multiple times to known coronavirus patients, and now the [debate] commission, the vice presidential candidate, the moderator and the audience will all have to calculate their risk against being in a closed space with him.”
She says the fact that he has tested negative in the days since Trump’s diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t carrying the virus — hence the CDC’s recommendation to quarantine for two weeks. “There is literally no evidence to support ending quarantine with negative tests,” says Kass. “And what we’re watching happen over and over again from people in the White House is that you will test negative, and then the next day you will test positive.”
Neither the Trump campaign nor the Biden campaign had responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment at the time of publishing.
Beyond her concerns about Wednesday’s debate, Kass worries about the potential implications of Pence’s decision. “To me, this says a lot more about his administration and his decision making than about anybody else in the room who chooses to protect themselves,” she says. “I mean, why would anybody in America who has been exposed to COVID quarantine now if the head of the COVID task force won’t do it?”
Kass, like Rasmussen and Popescu, doesn’t believe that the pieces of plexiglass that will be between Pence and Harris are sufficient, and has called for Pence to be surrounded from head to toe in plexiglass instead. “Our elementary school children sit behind more plexiglass than the vice president — who should be in quarantine,” says Kass.
As for whether the debate could be carried out safely, all three experts agree that the risks are too high. “This should absolutely be done remotely,” says Rasmussen. “There is no reason not to conduct debates on Zoom, and as an added bonus, that would also enable muting on people speaking out of turn, which seems to be a big problem based on the previous debate between President Trump and Vice President Biden.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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