Happy Scribe

Hey there, it's the NPR Politics podcast. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House. And today we've also got Rob Stein from NPR's Science Desk. Hey, Rob, welcome to the podcast.


Nice to be here. Well, it is four forty five p.m. on Monday, October 5th. And President Trump will be released from Walter Reed and returned to the White House later this evening. There was another briefing about the president's health that raised more questions than it answered, though he may not entirely be out of the woods yet.


The team and I agree that all our evaluations and most importantly, his clinical status support the president's safe return home, where he'll be surrounded by World-Class Medical Care 24/7.


And Tim, you were at Walter Reed today. You're still there. Let's start with what we do know about the president's health.


So what the doctor said is that he is doing better, that he doesn't have a fever. They gave a number of vital statistics that sound pretty normal. I'm not a doctor. And they said that he is in good enough condition to head home, but that doesn't mean that his treatment for the coronavirus is over. At one point I asked, you know, is he out of the woods essentially? And the answer was that if they get around to next Monday and everything still looks good, that then they will relax and feel good about it.


But this is a disease that changes and shifts. And in terms of the unanswered questions, yesterday, reporters asked about scans of the president's lungs and what they showed. And Dr. Connelly was not particularly clear. So we asked again. I asked again and really pressed on it. And he said, nope, not going to tell you essentially actually not telling us what those long scans showed, just to be clear.


So there are HEPA rules and regulations that restrict me in sharing certain things for his safety and his and his own health and and reasons.


Rob, what is your take on how the president's treatment is going? The doctor talked again that he would get another dose of Ramdas severe today and a fifth and final dose at the White House tomorrow.


Yes. So the when you put it all together, he's getting really aggressive treatment. As you said, he's getting the antiviral drug for him to severe. He's getting an experimental cocktail of what's called monoclonal antibodies to boost his immune system.


And he's getting a steroid that is usually reserved for really sick patients. So, yeah, you put it all together and it paints a picture of a patient that doctors are pretty worried about. But as Tim said, there's a lot that we still don't know.


That big, big ones, as she said, is, you know, what are the long scans show and how low did his blood without oxygen actually fall? Which would give you a good picture of really what the virus is doing in his lung. So, you know, the general impression we're getting is the doctors are mostly giving us information that makes the situation look as optimistic as possible. We're definitely not getting a full picture of what's going on here with the president.


Temas, is the White House given any explanation for why the president seems to be getting this extraordinarily aggressive treatment? Well, at the same time, they seem to be projecting a public message of it's a relatively mild case. He feels pretty good. He's on his way home. Well, and the president in his own tweet said, don't let Coronavirus rule your life. It's not so bad. Basically not an exact quote. And and what they said essentially is he's president of the United States.


So we gave him all this stuff earlier in the disease progression than you would normally give it to someone. Well, I want to focus on that for a minute, because Dr. Connelly came out to give this information about the president's health and he offered some details. But then on the tougher questions, he invoked Hipp, which is like a 90s era health care law that protects the privacy of patients, basically saying, oh, I can't tell you that because of hop.


Is that how hip hop works? You know, hip hop is a really important law, was designed to protect people's privacy, their private medical information, which most people don't want divulged. But there's nothing to stop any patient from saying, hey, it's OK. You can tell people whatever you want to tell people about my health, about my treatment. And this is the president, the United States. He clearly has waived his Hepple rights for the release of certain information.


We've been told a fair amount. So he could say, go ahead, tell them everything. There's no reason why he couldn't do that under. But there's no this is not inviolable law. So it's really up to the White House, up to President Trump to tell us what can be released and what can't be released. And they could be giving the public a lot more information than they have been giving so far.


Yeah. And so what I took from this briefing was that they just don't want to release some things and they don't have to. Certainly there is a desire from the American public to have a full understanding of what's going on with the president and his health. But there clearly is a desire from the president and his doctors not to make that picture clear. Rob, the. A couple questions that the doctor specifically wouldn't answer that I wonder if you could at least illuminate why those questions matter.


And the first one was the White House has declined to say when the president last had a negative test. Why does that matter?


Oh, that's really a key piece of information, because that really establishes the timeline. That tells us a lot about, you know, when he first got infected and how long he's been sick and when his symptoms started. And so that tells us a lot in terms of like how far along years in the course of his disease and when he might really be kind of getting to the point where he's either turning the corner and maybe getting out of the woods, or he might be reaching a critical point where things really could go south very quickly.


So that is sort of the key piece of information that everybody's sort of working from in terms of trying to figure out what's really going on here with the president and those around him, for that matter.


Can I add there's also a potential political reason why they might not want to share that information, which is just that they have said that the president is tested regularly. There may be an inconvenient answer about the last time he tested negative Tamme.


I would note that Dr. Connelly also defended the president's decision to leave the hospital yesterday to go do a drive by of his supporters, essentially saying he thought it was safe to do, which is not how it's been received by many of his critics. Yeah, that's right. The criticism is not only did the president leave the hospital when he wasn't ready to be discharged, but that he did so in an SUV full of people who had to wear PPE to travel with him.


Rob, the president has been in the hospital for about four days now. What do you make of this decision to send him back to the White House?


Typically what happens is you discharge a patient when they're recovered enough that you feel like they're out of the woods and sort of ready to get back to their normal lives. It's very unclear whether that's the situation here. That might be the case. There's some concern that maybe he's being discharged a little prematurely, but there certainly is no doubt that they are going to send him back. There was a lot of medical care around him because a lot of people with this disease are well, at least some people with this disease seem like they're getting better and then suddenly can take a turn for the worse.


So it's really important that he does have access to crucial medical care if that happens. All right.


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And we're back. And the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread inside the White House. Press Secretary Kelly McInerney is the latest person who attended that September 26 Rose Garden ceremony to test positive for the coronavirus. She put out a statement today. Tim, what did she say about her condition?


She said that at this time she isn't feeling sick and that she tested positive. She's been tested every day since Thursday when when the president and his close aide, Hope Hicks, both tested positive for coronavirus. So she sort of defended her decision to hold a briefing on Thursday, said that, you know, she didn't know yesterday when she did a TV hit and also did a brief Q&A with reporters outdoors without a mask, said she didn't know that she was infected at that time.


And we don't know that she would have where she got it exactly. But certainly she is not the only person in the White House to get sick. I mean, in addition to the president and the first lady and pretty much almost everyone who is involved in the president's debate preparations, you also now have two of Kayleigh McEnany deputies testing positive for coronavirus. As a result, the White House is instituting, you know, precautions that are similar to what we did at NPR in March, which means that very few people are now going into the office this week.


Everyone's wearing masks. Who does go in? It's it's very different. The White House is finally looking more like other workplaces.


Rob, it's been nine days since that Rose Garden ceremony. And I know we don't know with any scientific certainty whether that was the catalyst event, although there's been a high number of positives of attendees of that event. But. To me, it just reminds you that nine days later, we're still getting positives that this outbreak isn't over yet, right? No, no, that's right. You know, we know that people who get infected with the virus typically start to show symptoms around five days after that.


But it is highly variable. You know, it can take up to 10 days and maybe you can take you even up to 14 days for some people. So, you know, and some people never show any symptoms and then they can go on to infect other people. So we're really just at the beginning of trying to trace just how far and why this might end up being.


And so one important thing to note about that September twenty sixth event, what we all saw was a public event in the Rose Garden with people not wearing masks and chairs close together. But there was also a private reception, right, where people who were at that event were indoors, close together, not wearing masks. And and then there were debate prep sessions. So there there were any number of places for this disease to spread around the close quarters of the White House.


Is there any effort being done by the White House or public health officials to figure out if that event was a catalyst or is there any sort of official contact tracing going on? I mean, that was a pretty widely attended event. That's an interesting question.


You know, what we're told is that there is an epidemiologist in the White House who was in charge of the contact tracing that is following CDC guidelines. The CDC is available to help out. But as far as we know, that has not been the case so far. The CDC has not been called in to the situation to do the contact tracing themselves. We also know that the D.C. government has not been called in to be involved in the contact tracing.


So like a lot of things about this, there's just so many more questions than there are answers. We really don't know what that contact tracing might look like. And when we might get any answers.


All right, Tam. So Trump is headed back to the White House. As far as we know, he's not officially going back out on the campaign trail any time soon. But Vice President Mike Pence is he's leaving the White House and he's got the debate this week and is going to be back on the trail.


Yeah, he's he's going on sort of an extended Western swing. The debate is out in Utah. And then he will I think he also has a rally in Arizona and is also maybe visiting Nevada. It's a it's a big Western swing. And he's going to stop in Indiana on his way back to vote early in person. And here's the thing. Like campaigning in person was a very big part of President Trump's reelection plan for himself. And, you know, the vice president was supposed to be the supplement.


Well, now the vice president is the only one who's allowed outdoors. And so the vice president is campaigning in the president's stead and the president is tweeting, we don't know if he's going to start releasing videos or depending on how he feels, beaming into rallies from from the White House. We don't know how exactly they're going to adapt to this, but this is certainly not the way he planned to finish out his campaign.


My question, though, for pences, is this safe? You know, we just said we're nine days from that event. Mike Pence was there. He's had exposures. I know he's tested negative, but if he wasn't the vice president, if he was just any other person, wouldn't he be being told to stay home?


And within that 14 day quarantine, a negative test does not mean you're not infected. A negative test means that your tests came back negative, but it could be that it was a false negative. There's a high rate of false negatives among these tests, especially the tests that they've been typically using at the White House. So you cannot rely in a negative test with any certainty to say that you are definitely not infected. That's really important. And so the safest route would be to quarantine for 14 days to make.


That's the only way to know for sure that you're not infected and not spreading it to somebody else.


And look, we should note that Joe Biden, who also had some level of exposure to the president at that debate, has returned to the campaign trail.


He was on the trail today in Florida. So clearly there is an urgency in both campaigns to get back out there.


All right. Well, we'll leave it there for today. Rob, thanks so much for coming on the pot and helping us understand all this. My pleasure. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress. And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House. And thank you for listening to the NPR Politics podcast. And a special thanks to our funder, the little market, for helping to support this podcast.