Vice-president's press secretary the latest White House staffer to test positive for coronavirus

The White House says it is conducting contact tracing after the U.S. vice-president's press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive for coronavirus.

White House conducting contact tracing on Katie Miller, implementing guidelines

Katie Miller, press secretary for U.S. ‪Vice-President Mike Pence‬, is seen at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 10. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A member of U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence's staff has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, briefly delaying his Friday flight to Iowa and prompting some fellow passengers on Air Force Two to disembark, according to a White House official.

Pence's flight was delayed more than an hour on Friday morning and, according to press pool reports, passengers who were Pence staff members appeared to disembark before departure. It was not immediately clear whether the infected staffer had been aboard Air Force Two on Friday morning.

"This morning we had someone on the vice-president's staff test positive and so out of abundance of caution we went back and looked into all the person's contacts most recently," the official told reporters travelling with Pence, according to a media pool report.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said the person who received the latest positive test was Katie Miller, 25, Pence's press secretary and wife of Stephen Miller, Trump's senior White House adviser.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also confirmed the positive test. She pointed to new steps taken to further protect top officials, saying the White House is now conducting contact tracing and putting in place all guidelines recommended for essential workers.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is seen at a roundtable with agriculture and food supply leaders in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday. (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press)

"We've taken every single precaution to protect the president," McEnany told reporters, also pointing to regular cleanings and adherence to distancing guidelines of six feet between individuals that are not always followed at crowded White House events.

A senior administration official said Friday that Trump had not been in recent contact with Miller. The official said the staffer may have been in contact with six people who were scheduled to travel on Friday with the vice-president, and they were removed from the flight before it departed.

The news heightens fears of contagion to top officials like Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force which oversees the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, and who has resumed a robust travel schedule despite a rising national caseload.

On Thursday, a White House spokesperson said Pence and Trump tested negative for the novel coronavirus after a member of the U.S. military who works at the White House as a valet came down with the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican lawmakers in the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Pence was heading to Iowa on Friday to meet with faith leaders about holding "responsible" gatherings and to discuss the U.S. food supply at the headquarters for Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee Inc.

Trump on Friday said certain White House staff members have started wearing face masks, one day after the valet had tested positive.

Trump, asked whether those who serve him food would now cover their faces, told Fox News in an interview that such White House staff had made that change.

"They've already started," he said on the network's Fox and Friends morning program.

The White House on Thursday said Trump and Pence tested negative for the virus and were feeling well after the valet came down with the virus. It also said the two leaders would now be tested daily, versus weekly.

Trump says won't wear mask

Trump, who turns 74 next month, has said he would not wear a mask and has not publicly worn a mask to any of his events so far amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but told reporters this week that he tried some on behind the scenes during his visit to a Honeywell face mask factory in Arizona.

"As I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens ... I don't see it for myself, I just don't," Trump said in early April when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending widespread mask use to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus has killed more than 75,000 Americans and driven millions into unemployment as a result of lockdown measures to curb a rise in infections. Those measures are being eased in some states, but many are still requiring mask use.

WATCH | 'I don't think I'm going to be doing it,' Trump says of wearing masks:

Trump: 'This is voluntary. I don't think I'm going to be doing it'

2 years ago
U.S. president lists face mask recommendations from the CDC today, but stresses they are voluntary. 2:17

Both Trump and Pence have drawn fire for not donning face masks, with critics arguing they are setting a bad example for Americans.

Pence did not wear a mask while visiting coronavirus patients during a recent visit to Minnesota's famed Mayo Clinic, noting that he was tested frequently for the disease. But he later said he should have worn one, pointing out that it carries a symbolic weight as well.

Trump attended a public event at the World War Two memorial later on Friday. He was scheduled to meet with Republican members of Congress at the White House, according to the White House.

The Republican president also told Fox News that he has not yet been tested for antibodies to the novel coronavirus but probably would be soon. Such a test could confirm previous exposure to the virus.

Senators return to work

With Washington itself still under a stay-at-home order, senators who returned this week and were advised by the congressional physician to wear masks, maintain a distance of six feet and limit the number of staff on Capitol Hill.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of a small number of members of Congress to have contracted the virus and since recovered, declined to wear a mask.

"I have immunity," he told reporters, per the Washington Post. "I've already had the virus. So I can't get it again, and I can't give it to anybody."

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, left, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are seen in Washington on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/The Associated Press)

While the 57-year-old Paul has a medical degree, having practiced as an ophthalmologist in the past, a consensus has yet to emerge on the extent or length of immunity concerning the novel coronavirus.

Nearly two-thirds of senators are over the age of 60 and with 28 over the age of 70, according to the Congressional Research Service, putting them in the age category often most at risk to COVID-19.

The House of Representatives, with nearly five times as many legislators as the Senate, has yet to return to Capitol Hill.

Inconclusive science and shifting federal guidance have caused confusion about wearing masks. But last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending wearing cloth masks in crowded public situations to prevent transmitting the virus.

There is some indication the decision to wear one has partisan overtones. Those identifying as Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they're wearing a mask when leaving home, 76 per cent to 59 per cent, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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