- Dara Kassemergency medicine physician at Columbia University Medical Center and a Yahoo News medical contributor.
Shocking medical experts, President Trump has returned to the White House while still infectious with the coronavirus and after more than a dozen people in Trump’s orbit have already tested positive for COVID-19. Emergency room physician Dr. Dara Kass says she was “horrified” by President Trump’s dismissive attitude toward a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States. “I had this virus,” says Dr. Kass. “I never left my bedroom without an N95 mask on my face, because I was petrified of giving it to my friends and family.”
AMY GOODMAN: In a shocking show of recklessness, President Trump left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the White House on Monday evening, staging a series of photo ops as he walked out through its golden doors after a 72-hour stay and boarded the presidential helicopter back to the White House to continue his COVID-19 treatment. It was the beginning of a bizarre sequence of events that alarmed public health experts.
At the White House, Trump stepped off Marine One, then ascended a set of stairs to the first floor balcony, where he removed his mask, despite having COVID, and waved farewell to the helicopter in a propaganda-style video he soon posted to Twitter accompanied by dramatic music. He entered the White House unmasked, potentially exposing more staff, after at least two housekeeping staff recently tested positive. Trump filmed a video in front of the White House, which has become a COVID hot spot due to his administration’s negligence.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune. I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful. We have the best medicines in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s comments sparked outrage and alarm from public health officials and came as the U.S. COVID death toll passed 210,000.
Other video of Trump’s homecoming shows the president appearing short of breath. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed tweeted, quote, “This is not how a healthy man breathes.” Meanwhile, White House physician Dr. Sean Conley refused Monday to answer questions from reporters about the health of Trump’s lungs.
KATHERINE FAULDERS: Have you seen any evidence of pneumonia or any inflammation in his lungs at all?
DR. SEAN CONLEY: So, we’ve done routine standard imaging. I’m just not at liberty to discuss.
KATHERINE FAULDERS: So you’re actively not telling us what those lung scans showed, just to be clear?
DR. SEAN CONLEY: So, there are HIPAA rules and regulations that restrict me in sharing certain things, for his safety and his own health.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Conley also refused to disclose the last time the president tested negative for the virus.
KATHERINE FAULDERS: Can you tell us, please, on testing, can you tell us when he had his last negative test? Was it Thursday? Was it Wednesday? Do you remember when he had his last negative test?
DR. SEAN CONLEY: Yeah, I don’t want to go backwards.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the number of coronavirus cases emanating from the White House continues to grow. On Monday, Trump’s Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she had tested positive, along with two of her press deputies, bringing the number of people in Trump’s circle with COVID to well over a dozen.
For more, we’re joined by Dr. Dara Kass, emergency medicine physician, Columbia University Medical Center, and Yahoo News medical contributor.
Dr. Kass, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what you witnessed last night, Trump standing at the White House, returning home, saying he had learned real lessons, removing his mask, giving a thumbs up, and then turning and walking into the White House, where so many staff are under siege now, where people are talking about it as half-shutdown because of the number of people who are testing positive?
DR. DARA KASS: So, a couple things. First of all, I think myself and really anybody that’s been touched by this virus, the millions of Americans that have had it themselves, the hundreds of thousands of — the family members of the hundreds of thousands who have passed away, were horrified at this display of, really, nonchalantness around a virus that has killed so many Americans and affected all of our lives.
The idea that — first of all, you need to remember that anyone watching this video does not think that the president is healthy right now. There’s no evidence that he is over this, he is immune, he is better. We know this president has this idea that if he thinks positively, positive things will happen. And so, he may be convincing himself that he is somehow over this virus, that he has somehow finished the course. But as somebody that both had the virus myself and also has taken care of hundreds of patients who have had it over the past six months, I can tell you that the virus takes time on your body, especially when you have known lung disease.
And we know the president has lung disease, not just because he was clearly short of breath in that video — ”#GaspingForAir” was trending on Twitter — but also that he’s being treated with the medications we give for patients that have lung disease. And that’s what’s going to happen to a significant percentage of patients who are in his age bracket, who have his risk factors. They’re going to get lung disease.
There’s nothing wrong with having, you know, side effects of this virus, having effects on your body. There is no indictment of your strength if you are ill from this virus or if you pass away. And I think the worst thing for us, as doctors, as public health professionals, is the idea that this display of, you know, aggrandized, boisterous bravado will somehow protect him from a virus that has hurt so many Americans, that he is somehow better than the rest of us.
I had this virus. I was in bed for over a week, while taking naps, hydrating myself. I moved my children out of my house. And I never left my bedroom without an N95 mask on my face, because I was petrified of giving it to my friends and family. So the idea the president would pose for a photo op unmasked and expose even one person to his virus, I think, says a lot about how he feels about the people around him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Kass, I’m wondering if you could talk about the treatment that the president has received, not only the experimental monoclonal antibody made by Regeneron, but also the antiviral drug remdesivir and especially dexamethasone, which is a common steroid that’s recommended only for critically ill patients. And yet, we were told, initially, and there hasn’t been anything to contradict it, that his case is largely mild.
DR. DARA KASS: Right. So, a couple of things. So, going on the course of what we heard from the White House about his treatment, the Regeneron antibody cocktail, which is two monoclonal antibodies, is supposed to give your body a head start on the antibody response, right? If your body hasn’t made its own antibodies, they give you the antibodies. We do think it’s interesting that he got the Regeneron cocktail as opposed to convalescent plasma, which his FDA rushed an emergency use authorization for, since they functionally do the same thing. But, obviously, his physicians made the choice to go with this experimental medication, which I think says a lot about the potential for this medication. That helps your body fight the virus and ideally would decrease the viral load in your body so that the other effects of the virus on your body would not happen — the lung disease, the kidney disease, the blood clots, the difficulty breathing and, eventually, the heart disease and other system problems we’re seeing.
After that, we know that he moved to the hospital, right? So, that’s not to say that that didn’t work. It’s just to say that he was sick. And he went into the hospital and got the remdesivir. Remdesivir is an antiviral that has shown to shorten the course of hospitalization. So it’s really recommended in hospitalized patients to make them come out of the hospital faster. But it hasn’t shown to change whether or not somebody lives or dies. And we know that it’s given to patients who are moderate, you know, illness in this course — again, inconsistent with what we’re telling, that it was an abundance of caution. But then, afterwards, we find out that maybe his oxygen levels were low for a short period of time, remembering that those low oxygen levels reflect lung damage. And it’s not likely that there was transient lung damage. It’s more that he was able to compensate and then not able to compensate, on and off.
The last medication he received we know about is dexamethasone. And we know that that happened after these multiple levels of hypoxia, low oxygen. And we know this medication, which is the oldest medication — it’s been around forever — is given on patients who have oxygen needs. So, they’re getting supplemental oxygen, and they’re, you know, serious, moderate, even critically ill patients. And this has actually been shown to save lives in that subset of patients.
We also know that that cocktail of three medications has never been given to one patient before, because of the fact this is a new and experimental medication, the first one, that’s only being given in compassionate use, meaning that the risks to the patient are lower than the benefit of him living, because we don’t know much about the medication. So, it’s a very aggressive cocktail of medications. We don’t know how they interact, although we don’t think they would have side effects interacting with each other. They all act differently on the body.
Again, but the most concerning thing, and, I think, the disconnect here, is that it’s not that he’s sick or that he got medications. That’s going to happen to somebody in his age bracket with his risk factors. It’s that somehow he’s able to override his physicians in minimizing that effect on his body or, more importantly, the risk he poses to other people. You know, the president is the president of the United States. He’s an incredibly important patient. We want to make sure that he gets the best treatment and that he’s obviously as well as possible. But he also is an infectious patient putting other people’s lives at risk.
And most importantly, he’s an example for the rest of America. How many patients who find out they’re exposed to this virus will now not quarantine because the people in his orbit are not quarantining? Or how many patients will not isolate themselves in their house, and expose their partner, their children, their elderly grandmother to this virus, because he walked into the White House without a mask? And how many people will declare themselves COVID-cured?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned him — Dr. Kass, you mentioned him trying to override his physicians. Could you talk a little bit about how the physicians, especially Dr. Sean Conley and others — how they’ve been transmitting information to the public on this issue?
DR. DARA KASS: So, I would say that their press conferences have been a lot more like a press briefing than a medical briefing. And what I mean by that is they’re leading with what the president wants to hear, not what we need to know. As Americans, we deserve to know about the condition of the president and our commander-in-chief in a transparent and consistent way. And it’s the backtracking and inconsistencies.
Again, none of us need to be the president’s doctor. He has an excellent medical team. What we need to know is what does his health mean for our country and how is that virus transmitted to other people in the White House. And the simple fact of them not telling us when he was testing negative versus when he tested positive, while for months they’re telling us that he’s getting negative tests all the time, or that they don’t — they’re not transparent on when his oxygen levels drop — now, again, it’s not because we want to manage his medical care. It’s because that represents not just severe disease, but potentially impaired decision-making capacity.
And so, it’s really a — it’s incumbent on them, as Americans and as service providers to this country, to be true and to be honest with the American people. Instead, it seems like they’re just serving at the pleasure of the president. And in a lot of ways, in this particular case, the patient is guiding his care, which we know, as physicians, is a very bad idea.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna from California tweeted, “There are now more recorded cases of COVID-19 in the White House than in New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam combined” — in the White House than in New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam combined — “and they have 124 million people. Let that sink in,” Ro Khanna said. Your thoughts, Dr. Kass?
DR. DARA KASS: My thoughts are, if Jacinda Ardern was in charge of the White House, it would be locked down.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that he walked in there — I mean, you’ve got so many different issues. Dexamethasone has a side effect of what? Grandiose delusions. It’s hard to separate that from President Trump on a regular day without the steroid. But what that means in terms of decision-making? And taking off that mask and walking inside, where the majority of the nonpolitical staff, the household staff, are older people of color, and we know that is the most vulnerable group when it comes to COVID-19. If you can just talk about what this means that he went back to the White House — and after saying he had learned something, not textbook-wise, he said, but, you know, he lived the learning — and took off his mask?
DR. DARA KASS: You know, it’s an affront to them and their service to this country. Very much it says their lives don’t matter to him, and neither do their families’ lives, remembering that all of those people who work at the White House have children and spouses. He has no idea if they’re immune-compromised. He has no idea about their children trying to stay in school, about their own personal circumstances.
We also know from a memo in the White House that they’re not doing contact tracing to anyone at the Rose Garden. They’re not offering testing to anybody that’s not well known to the American public. In a world where the president was supposed to be getting testing daily, they’re telling people who work at the White House that they should go to their primary care provider if they’re concerned. Any employer that puts their employees at risk to this level should be mandated to take care of their patients, which at a minimum includes paying them for their quarantine and making sure they’re testing and supported if they get sick from their employment.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we know that two household staff have tested positive. And it’s going to be very hard to know, both in Trump’s family and the staff of the White House, who has tested positive or how many people have tested positive. Right before the Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tested positive, she told reporters on Sunday she would no longer be reporting the number or the people in the White House, that, you know, it would go dark. How are we going to find out this information now? Because this goes to the issue of contact tracing, something the White House says it also is not going to do for the large Rose Garden ceremony and, more significantly, the receptions that were held indoors last weekend for the Supreme Court Justice [sic] Amy Coney Barrett.
DR. DARA KASS: I mean, it’s a real national security issue.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, for the woman he nominated as a Supreme Court justice.
DR. DARA KASS: Right. And it’s a real national security issue, right? Because we don’t know how many people are exposed or even how their offices are going to be exposed. What if we find out this has gotten into the Pentagon? What if we find out that this has gotten into other areas of the White House? Remembering that by not contact tracing — you know, to quote Dr. Conley, who said, “We’re not going to look back,” looking back — contact tracing is looking back, right? And the idea that somehow they’re not going to report out how many people are positive minimizes the risk to all of Americans, and the idea that when it gets into your workplace, you need to be responsible to share that information. How many Americans are going to not get tested now, to act like if they don’t have a positive test, they don’t have to tell anyone that they’re positive? All this is going to do is perpetuate the spread of this virus through this country.
I spoke at a ceremony on Sunday in front of the White House, commemorating the 200,000 Americans that have passed away from this virus, you know, remembering that they represent a fraction of the millions of Americans that have been affected by this virus. It was like — almost like jarring, in a way that is almost surreal, to speak in front of the White House, commemorating the 200,000 Americans dying and asking America to help us not see the next 200,000 more pass away, and then literally watch the president take a joyride, currently infectious, around Walter Reed, exposing his Secret Service members to this virus. You know, we need to remember that we don’t have to have the next 200,000 die. We can do this, even if our president is not going to lead us.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Kass, I wanted to ask you about a New York Times report on Monday that the White House is blocking stricter guidelines proposed by the FDA for emergency approval of a coronavirus vaccine. The White House is supposedly objecting to a rule that would make the authorization of a vaccine before the election almost impossible. Could you talk about that and also your sense of where the vaccine trials stand right now?
DR. DARA KASS: Sure. So, the vaccine trials are actually very encouraging, right? Operation Warp Speed has invested a significant amount of money in multiple vaccines. And these candidates seem to be conferring an antibody response. And we’re in the middle of Phase 3 trials for multiple vaccine candidates, and that’s really encouraging.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen that this White House politicizes the process — right? — of approval. And like I said, we saw this with hydroxychloroquine and with convalescent plasma. And one of the reasons we were nervous with the plasma is that we were worried that they were going to do this with a vaccine — basically jumping in before Phase 3 trials were complete, and saying, “This one’s good enough for us. We’re going to say now we have a vaccine. You know, ’Here’s our miracle cure.’ And we’re going to start giving it to Americans, and we’re going to start with vulnerable Americans” — again, remembering that there’s a history of distrust around new vaccines in vulnerable populations because of them being used as guinea pigs, in all fairness. And so, we do need to understand that community trust around this vaccine is critically important.
And going through the proper channels through the FDA, and approval, is going to be critical to actually getting the vaccine in people’s arms. The FDA put forward some rule that really was built to get public trust around the vaccine. It didn’t do much for the approval process, right? The most stringent thing they said was they were going to wait two months after the last dose of vaccine to make sure that the safety profile was robust, that nobody had any side effects of the virus — of the vaccine, and that really enough people were protected from this vaccine, then didn’t get the virus themselves — really, bottom-floor minimum standards.
And we knew, as soon as they said that, that there was a really good chance the White House was going to put their finger on the scale and try to undo that. And we heard from the president himself. He said, when asked about this, “Well, we’ll see what they get to do. Remember who’s really in charge.” And we need to remember that the FDA and the CDC have both had to walk back recommendations that they’ve given, or change processes, because of direct intervention from this White House, on the communication and the approval of medications and therapeutics and vaccines — well, not vaccines yet, but you know what I mean — for this coronavirus, in addition to the recommendations on things like quarantine and isolation. So, this is really unsurprising. And I’m really hoping that the vaccine makers and the FDA really stand up against this president and say, “No, the science must come first.”
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Dara Kass, we just have 30 seconds, but the vice-presidential debate is taking place tomorrow night, in person at this point. But do you think that Vice President Mike Pence, who’s clearly in and out of the White House and was right there at the ceremony, the Supreme Court ceremony, should be self-quarantining at this point?
DR. DARA KASS: Yeah. Objectively, there is no reason that — Mike Pence should be quarantining. Unfortunately, he’s not. And he’s requiring that the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic side put herself at risk by standing next to him. And so she’s going to protect herself as best that she needs to.
AMY GOODMAN: And there, they mock her and say how — you know, “How dare she stand behind a plexiglass partition?” But also, Vice President Biden, do you think he should be quarantining? We do not know when President Trump last tested negative. It was clear he did not test on Tuesday because he so-called came too late to the debate to be tested. There was Biden not so far away from him.
DR. DARA KASS: So, we know that if the president would be honest about his testing, it would be easier for the vice president to be able to make that decision. We also know that with the information the vice president has, being over 10 feet away from the president and currently wearing a mask everywhere he goes, he’s following the CDC guidelines of President Trump’s administration. So, right now the information the vice president has, I think, says that he doesn’t need to quarantine. But it would be really important, if there was missing information, for the president of the United States and his office to share that with the vice president.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Dara Kass, we want to thank you for being with us, emergency medicine physician at Columbia University Medical Center, Yahoo News medical contributor.
When we come back, we’ll be joined by Kristin Urquiza, speaking out after her father, a Trump supporter, died from COVID. She attended last week’s presidential debate, sitting just feet away from President Trump, now in self-quarantine. Stay with us.