Trump pays drive-by visit to supporters outside hospital after doctors confirm his blood oxygen dropped twice
Still-infectious president declares 'I get it,' shortly before motorcade
Two days after being hospitalized with COVID-19, U.S. President Donald Trump declared "I get it," in a message to the nation Sunday before briefly leaving the hospital to salute supporters from a motorcade, a move that suggested the president would continue to disregard basic precautions to contain the virus that has killed more than 209,000 Americans.
Hours earlier, Trump's medical team reported that his blood oxygen level dropped suddenly twice in recent days and that they gave him a steroid typically only recommended for the very sick. The doctors also said Trump's health is improving and that he could be discharged as early as Monday.
With one month until election day in the United States, Trump was eager to project strength despite his illness. The still-infectious president surprised supporters who had gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, driving by in a black SUV with the windows rolled up. Secret Service agents inside the vehicle could be seen in masks and other protective gear.
The move capped a weekend of contradictions that fuelled confusion about Trump's health, which has imperilled the leadership of the U.S. government and upended the final stages of the presidential campaign. While Trump's physicians offered a rosy prognosis, they reported information about drops in his blood oxygen level that was initially withheld from the public.
In a short video released by the White House, Trump insisted he understood the gravity of the moment. But his actions moments later, by leaving the hospital and sitting inside the SUV with others, suggested otherwise.
"This is insanity," said Dr. James P. Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed who is a critic of Trump and his handling of the pandemic. "Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential 'drive-by' just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die."
"For political theatre," the doctor added. "Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater."
White House spokesperson Judd Deere said Trump's trip outside the hospital "was cleared by the medical team as safe to do." He added that precautions were taken, including using personal protective equipment, to protect Trump as well as White House officials and Secret Service agents.
Late Sunday, the White House released new photos of Trump holding a conference call with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Trump and aides have continually sought to paint the president as still at work even as he deals with his health crisis.
Joe Biden's campaign, meanwhile, said the Democratic presidential nominee again tested negative for coronavirus Sunday. The results come five days after Biden spent more than 90 minutes on the debate stage with Trump. Biden, who has taken a far more cautious approach to in-person events, had two negative tests on Friday.
Questions remain about president's health
For his part, Trump still faces questions about his health. His doctors sidestepped questions on Sunday about exactly when Trump's blood oxygen dropped — an episode they neglected to mention in multiple statements the day before — or whether lung scans showed any damage.
It was the second straight day of obfuscation from a White House already suffering from a credibility crisis. And it raised serious questions about whether the doctors treating the president can be trusted to share accurate, timely information with the American public.
Pressed about conflicting information he and the White House released on Saturday, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley acknowledged that he had tried to present a rosy description of the president's condition.
WATCH | Trump's medical team confirms president was given oxygen Friday:
"I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, that the president, that his course of illness has had. Didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction," Conley said. "And in doing so, came off like we're trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he's doing really well."
Before his transfer to hospital late Friday, Trump's oxygen levels dipped and he had a high fever and was given supplemental oxygen for about an hour — but was not short of breath and was soon "moving about" with "only mild symptoms," said Conley.
At the time of the briefing, Trump's blood oxygen level was 98 per cent — within normal range, Trump's medical team said.
Blood oxygen saturation is a key health marker for COVID-19 patients. A normal reading is between 95 and 100. A drop below 90 is concerning.
The doctors also declined to say what they had found in scans of the president's lungs.
"There's some expected findings but nothing of any major clinical concern," Conley said. He declined to outline those "expected findings." The virus can cause pneumonia and other damage that may be visible in scans before a patient is feeling very sick.
Trump has been eager to return home and hates the image of himself at the hospital, according to people familiar with his mood. He has also been struggling to come to grips with the uncertainty of how long his illness will last and when he might be able to return to the campaign, with just weeks to go before the Nov. 3 election.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump also released a video on Twitter thanking the doctors and nurses at the military hospital.
Trump receives Dexamethasone
Another physician on the team, Dr. Brian Garibaldi of Johns Hopkins University, said Trump completed a second dose of the antiviral remdesivir on Saturday evening and reported no side effects.
"In response to transient low oxygen levels, as Dr. Conley has discussed, we did initiate dexamethasone therapy, and he received his first dose of that yesterday, and our plan is to continue that for the time being," Garibaldi said.
Dexamethasone, a steroid, is shown in studies to improve survival for patients hospitalized with critical COVID-19 who need extra oxygen. But it should not be given in mild cases, since it can limit the body's own ability to combat the virus, according to guidelines from the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
"The fact of the matter is, he's doing really well," Conley said at Sunday's media briefing.
WATCH | What is dexamethasone?
Trump's illness has upended the election campaign and cast a spotlight on the president's handling of the pandemic. The Republican president is trailing Democratic rival Biden in opinion polls.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Sunday found that Biden had opened a 10-point lead over Trump nationally, slightly wider than it has been for the past two months. Some 65 per cent of Americans said Trump likely would not have been infected had he taken the virus more seriously — a view that half of registered Republicans polled supported. Some 55 per cent said they did not believe Trump had been telling the truth about the virus.
Trump has repeatedly played down the threat of the pandemic, even as it has killed more than 209,000 Americans and hammered the U.S. economy.
With Trump off the campaign trail indefinitely, his campaign announced "Operation MAGA," based on his slogan "Make America Great Again," which will see high-profile allies — including Vice-President Mike Pence and Trump's elder sons, Donald Jr. and Eric — take over in-person campaigning this week.
Pence, who tested negative on Friday, is scheduled to debate Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris on Wednesday.
Biden, who largely avoided direct criticism of Trump during a campaign trip to Michigan on Friday, took a more aggressive tone on Saturday while speaking to a transit workers' union, even as he wished the president well.
"I'm in a little bit of a spot here, because I don't want to be attacking the president and the first lady now," Biden said, adding he hoped Trump and his wife, Melania, who also has the illness, make a full recovery.
But he quickly turned to Trump's response to the pandemic, calling it "unconscionable" and blasting the president's comment in an interview this past summer that "it is what it is" when asked about the death toll.
Biden, who tested negative on Friday, told reporters he would next be tested on Sunday. His campaign will begin releasing the results of each test, a spokesperson said.
WATCH | Illness may make Trump more relatable to voters, Republican strategist says:
Conley said doctors plan to keep Trump on a five-day course of remdesivir, an intravenous antiviral drug sold by Gilead Sciences Inc that has been shown to shorten hospital stays.
He is also taking an experimental treatment, Regeneron's REGN-COV2, as well as zinc, vitamin D, famotidine (sold under the brand name Pepcid), melatonin and Aspirin, Conley has said.
A number of other prominent Republicans have also tested positive for the coronavirus since Trump's announcement, including Republican senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson, former White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.