Aides to US vice-president Mike Pence tested positive to Covid-19 over the weekend as a surge in coronavirus cases hung over the US election ahead of the final full week of campaigning.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden entered the last stretch of a marathon campaign as record increases in cases across several states tested the capacity of hospitals, and the White House itself suffered its second cluster of infections.
At least four members of Mr Pence’s team have tested positive, US media reported on Sunday. Mr Pence chairs the White House coronavirus task force.
Trump administration officials said Mr Pence would press ahead with planned events, despite coming into what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “close contact” with his chief of staff, Marc Short, who tested positive at the weekend.
Mr Trump continued to downplay the pandemic at a rally in New Hampshire on Sunday, saying increased testing was the reason for the surge.
“We’re rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, it’s going to be over,” he told a crowd in Manchester.
However, Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff, delivered a starker message when he told CNN: “We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations.”
When pressed on why the US could not control the virus, Mr Meadows replied: “Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.”
With just over a week to go until election day, more than 58m Americans have cast their ballots early, either in-person or by mail, according to the University of Florida’s US Elections Project. Millions more are expected to vote in coming days, as the Republican president and his Democratic challenger criss-cross the country in a final effort to woo voters ahead of November 3.
Mr Trump is running out of time to catch up to his rival, who leads in national opinion polls by 8.7 percentage points, according to Financial Times analysis of Real Clear Politics data. The former vice-president is also polling ahead in several swing states that are crucial to securing electoral college votes.
A CBS News poll on Sunday showed Mr Biden and Mr Trump tied in Georgia, a state the president won in 2016 against Hillary Clinton by a 5-point margin. Mr Biden is expected to visit the state on Tuesday, underscoring how the Democrats are seeking to expand their Electoral College map on election night. A Dallas Morning News poll out on Sunday also showed Mr Biden ahead by three points in Texas, a Republican stronghold that has the second-highest number of Electoral College votes of any state, behind only California.
The former vice-president has sought to frame November’s election in part as a referendum on the president’s handling of the pandemic.
The US reported 82,668 new cases on Saturday, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Several states posted record one-day increases in infections last week, including the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. More than 216,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, the highest nationwide total in the world.
Mr Trump’s poll numbers slipped earlier this month after he was hospitalised with Covid-19. Surveys then showed most Americans thought the president, who rarely wears a mask in public, had been irresponsible in handling his own illness. Several White House staffers and people working on the president’s re-election campaign also fell ill.
Devin O’Malley, the vice-president’s press secretary, said late on Saturday that Mr Short had tested positive and started quarantining. Mr Pence has tested negative for the virus.
“While Vice-President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the vice-president will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” Mr O’Malley added.
The CDC defines “close contact” as being within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, starting from two days before they start feeling ill. CDC guidance recommends anyone in close contact with an infected person self-isolate for two weeks “even if you test negative for Covid-19 or feel healthy”.
The New York Times later reported that at least three more people in the vice-president’s inner circle had tested positive. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr Pence is expected to preside over a Senate vote in Washington on Monday to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court — a vote Republicans argue will galvanise conservatives and boost support for the president and GOP congressional candidates.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s most senior Democrat, sent a letter to his caucus denouncing Mr Pence for refusing to follow CDC guidelines regarding quarantining and contact tracing.
“Their carelessness with the health and safety of their colleagues and Capitol employees mirrors their carelessness with the health and safety of Americans during this crisis,” Mr Schumer wrote.
He recommended Democratic senators “not congregate in the Senate chamber today and that you cast your votes quickly and from a safe distance.”