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Meet the College Senior Who Built a COVID Tracker After CDC Blocked from Tracing Trump’s Contacts

StoryOctober 06, 2020
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As the number of people in President Trump’s orbit who test positive for COVID-19 continues to grow, we meet a student journalist who is doing what the White House doesn’t want the CDC to do: tracing the contacts of people who may have infected or been infected by President Trump. Benjy Renton, a Middlebury College senior, helped develop a real-time tracking tool to monitor the growing number of people in President Trump’s circle who were exposed or infected with COVID-19. The site is called COVID-19 at the White House and lists over 270 contacts and 25 positive cases, so far. It uses “publicly available information to ensure the American public have access and have the transparency that they deserve,” says Renton.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As the number of people in President Trump’s orbit who test positive for COVID-19 continues to grow, we’re joined now by a student journalist who’s doing what the White House does not want the Centers for Disease Control to do: tracing the contacts of people who may have infected or been infected by President Trump. Benjy Renton is a Middlebury College senior who helped develop a real-time tracking tool called COVID-19 at the White House. Benjy is also the digital director for Middlebury College’s school newspaper.

Benjy, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Your website now shows 277 contacts, with 25 positive cases and a list of people you know to have come in contact with Donald Trump and others through him. Can you explain who’s on the list, how you were able to come up with this, with a group of people?

BENJY RENTON: Yeah. Amy, thank you so much for having me.

So, we’ve been able to essentially track the contacts of anyone who’s come in contact with the president or Hope Hicks or any of the individuals who have tested positive. As you said, we’ve had 277 contacts that we’ve been able to track so far, 25 of those who are positive, including Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, two of her assistant press secretaries, first lady Melania Trump, Notre Dame president John Jenkins.

So, we’re still trying to understand the scope of the spread of this outbreak and sort of what events really led to the viral transmission. But we’ve determined that the spread is particularly alarming in and around the White House.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve included in your contact tracking map a variety of events: the Rose Garden event, where Trump’s Supreme Court nominee was officially announced, on Saturday, September 26th; the presidential debate last Tuesday; the president’s rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday; and his fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster on Thursday evening. Talk about the map, how you put it together, and how you’re getting this information.

BENJY RENTON: Sure. So, we were able to essentially use public reports, pictures, flight manifests, as well as we have our own tip line where individuals can fill out any sort of tips or results that they want us to investigate.

And so, we’ve looked essentially at any events or any settings that the president may have come in contact with. And that goes, as you said, to the Supreme Court nominee event in the Rose Garden, which also there was also an indoor event that was just before the ceremony, which potentially contributed to viral spread, and that was a smaller-scale event but indoors with a larger risk of transmission; the debate on that Tuesday, the debate prep beforehand; the Minnesota fundraiser. We just received an article this morning that we are adding a couple of individuals who were at the restaurant that was helping prepare the food for the fundraiser, who are now quarantined.

So, there’s truly a national scope of this outbreak, and we’re really trying to cast as wide of a net as possible, using publicly available information, to ensure that the American public have access and have the transparency that they deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Which also really shows us how important public information is. I mean, you have Michael Shear of The New York Times, who’s COVID-positive, one of three reporters, White House reporters, who have tested positive since last weekend. He has not been contacted by the White House, he says. And so, the real question, if any contact tracing is being done. And why, Benjy, is this contact tracing so important, when people find out if they have been near any of the people? I mean, Chris Christie now, the former governor of New Jersey, who did debate prep and was at the Supreme Court ceremony, he is hospitalized with COVID.

BENJY RENTON: Yeah. And so, as you said, Michael Shear and a couple of individuals, including Chris Christie himself, really only found out that they were in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 via the media or any sort of news reports that they consumed, because there was no official contact tracing effort, that we know of, at the White House. And we received notification yesterday in a New York Times report that the event at the Supreme — the Supreme Court nomination event Saturday will not be contact traced.

And so, while this is a not an official contact tracing investigation — we’re not conducting a medical investigation — we really believe and we hope that this tracker can enact change and essentially help people understand the scope, as well as, hopefully, if those who are contacts of the president or those who are contacts of those who tested positive, really urging them to quarantine and prevent further spread of this virus, as we’ve seen second-order contacts, which are essentially people who were not at the events that the president attended or not at the White House events, but were contacts with somebody else, and they tested positive. So, this is truly kind of a ripple effect when we talk about spread here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you talk about some of the people you’ve identified as possible second-level contacts?

BENJY RENTON: Yeah. So, Claudia Conway, who is the daughter of former counsel to the president Kellyanne Conway, had posted on TikTok that she had tested positive for COVID-19. And she was not at any of the initial events or anything. She had contact, obviously, with her mother, Kellyanne. And so, we know that COVID-19 spreads oftentimes in home settings or in family settings, because those are areas where individuals are in close contact with each other without masks. So, that’s one of them.

We’ve also started to really kind of draw back the scope of this, and maybe even go earlier than that Saturday Supreme Court event. We learned yesterday, according to The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, that two White House resident staff have tested positive. We read a CNN report a couple days ago that showed, even as far back as two or so weeks ago, there was a White House staffer that tested positive.

And we want to reiterate that we really do protect individuals’ privacy, and so this is all publicly available information. And that often means that we may need to name someone as “White House staffer” or “journalist one” or “journalist two,” “journalist three.” But we really want to get as accurate and as timely of a data set as possible, without sacrificing privacy or accuracy.

AMY GOODMAN: And if people want to get this information, where can they go? We have five seconds.

BENJY RENTON: Yeah, so they can go to, and there’s a tip line there that we encourage anybody to submit tips or even results, if they are contacts.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, with all the controversies going around college education right now, Benjy, I can see that your time is well spent. Benjy Renton, senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the creators of the White House COVID-19 outbreak tracker website. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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