U.S. President Donald Trump staged a dramatic return to the White House on Monday night after leaving the military hospital where he has been receiving an unprecedented level of care for COVID-19.
He immediately ignited a new controversy by declaring that despite his illness the nation should not fear the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans — and then he entered the White House without a protective mask.
Trump’s message alarmed infectious disease experts and suggested the president’s own illness had not caused him to rethink his often-cavalier attitude toward the disease, which has also infected his wife and several White House aides, including new cases revealed on Monday.
Landing at the White House on Marine One, Trump gingerly climbed the South Portico steps, removed his mask and declared, “I feel good.” He gave a double thumbs-up to the departing helicopter from the portico terrace, where aides had arranged American flags for the sunset occasion.
He entered the White House, where aides were visible milling about the Blue Room, without wearing a face covering.
Minutes later, he tweeted a video of himself, telling Americans not to be afraid of coronavirus or let it take over their lives, likely a difficult message for the families of those who have died from the virus. He said he learned so much about the virus while in hospital, talking about the best equipment and medicines, the likes of which the average American would not have access to.
And he promised vaccines are coming “momentarily.”
Earlier, the president left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a waiting SUV that carried him to Marine One for the short helicopter flight back to the White House.
Even before he walked out the doors, he tweeted that he’d be back on the campaign trail soon.
The 74-year-old Trump was expected to continue his recovery at the White House, where he will be cared for around-the-clock by a team of doctors and nurses. He announced his coronavirus diagnosis early Friday.
WATCH | Trump’s doctor says they are ‘cautiously optimistic’:
His doctor, Navy Cmdr. Sean Conley, told reporters earlier Monday that Trump remains contagious.
Trump’s return home comes after he has received an exceptionally aggressive course of treatment and a standard of care well above what is available to average Americans. Because of that, Conley said, the president was in “uncharted territory” and would not be fully out of the woods for another week.
Conley said the president could resume his normal schedule once “there is no evidence of live virus still present.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 can be contagious for as many — and should isolate for at least — 10 days.
Conley repeatedly declined to share results of medical scans of Trump’s lungs, saying he was not at liberty to discuss the information because Trump did not waive doctor-patient confidentiality on the subject. COVID-19 has been known to cause significant damage to the lungs of some patients. Conley also declined to share the date of Trump’s most recent negative test for the virus — a critical data point for contact tracing and understanding where Trump was in the course of the disease.
The news that Trump would be leaving the hospital came one day after he briefly ventured out while contagious to salute cheering supporters by motorcade — an outing that disregarded precautions meant to contain the virus.
WATCH | Conley says doctors are still on guard:
White House officials had said Trump was anxious to be released after three nights at the facility, where doctors revealed on Sunday that his blood oxygen level had dropped suddenly twice in recent days and that they gave him a steroid typically only recommended for the very sick.
His transfer home Monday raised new questions about how the administration was going to protect other officials from a disease that remains rampant in the president’s body, and came as the scale of the outbreak at the White House itself is still being uncovered. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany announced she had tested positive for the virus Monday morning and was entering quarantine.
Less than one month before election day, Trump was eager to project strength despite his illness. The still-infectious president surprised supporters who had gathered outside the hospital, riding past them Sunday in a black SUV with the windows rolled up. Secret Service agents inside the vehicle could be seen in masks and other protective gear.
The move capped a weekend of contradictions that fuelled confusion about Trump’s health. While Trump’s physician offered a rosy prognosis on his condition, his briefings lacked basic information, including the findings of lung scans, or were quickly muddled by more serious assessments of the president’s health by other officials.
Trump’s nonchalant message about not fearing the virus comes as his own administration has encouraged Americans to be very careful and take precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the disease as cases continue to spike across the country. For more than eight months, Trump’s efforts to play down the threat of the virus in hopes of propping up the economy ahead of the election have drawn bipartisan criticism.
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Only a day earlier, Trump suggested he had finally grasped the true nature of the virus, saying in a video, “I get it.” But his actions a short time later, by leaving the hospital and sitting inside the SUV with others, suggested otherwise.
Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife Karen tested negative again, the White House said on Monday. Pence is scheduled to debate his Democratic counterpart in the only vice-presidential debate on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, Utah.
WATCH | Biden urges Trump to follow the science on COVID-19:
Joe Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, said the Democratic presidential nominee again tested negative for coronavirus Sunday. The results come five days after Biden spent more than 90 minutes on the debate stage with Trump. Biden, who has taken a far more cautious approach to in-person events, had two negative tests on Friday.
He said Monday that he’s glad Trump appears to have made a swift recovery, but he notes that “our nation’s current crisis is far from over.”
Biden said he was happy to see the president recording video messages but urged him to change his tune about the virus.
“Listen to the scientists,” Biden said during a campaign stop in Miami. “Support masks.”
Biden also said he was willing to debate Trump in the previously scheduled Miami meeting of the candidates on Oct. 15, provided it was safe to do so.
McEnany spoke briefly with reporters Sunday evening outside the White House without wearing a mask, but said that no members of the press corps spent enough time around her to be considered close contacts.
Experience not typical
Trump’s experience with the disease has been dramatically different from most Americans, who do not have access to the same kind of monitoring and care. While most must cope with their symptoms — and fear of whether they’ll take a turn for the worse — at home and alone, Trump has been staying in the presidential suite of one of the nation’s best hospitals and has been given experimental drugs not readily available to the public.
He returns to the White House where there is a team of doctors on call with 24-hour monitoring.
The president’s doctor sidestepped questions on Sunday about exactly when Trump’s blood oxygen dropped — episodes they neglected to mention in multiple statements the day before — or whether lung scans showed any damage.
The disclosures about Trump’s oxygen levels and steroid treatment suggested the president is enduring more than a mild case of COVID-19.
Blood oxygen saturation is a key health marker for COVID-19 patients. A normal reading is between 95 and 100 per cent. Conley said the president had a “high fever” and a blood oxygen level below 94 per cent on Friday and during “another episode” on Saturday.
WATCH | The different treatments Trump’s been given:
Conley revealed that Trump was given a dose of the steroid dexamethasone in response.
“There’s some expected findings, but nothing of any major clinical concern,” Conley said. He declined to outline those “expected findings.”
Trump’s treatment with dexamethasone is in addition to the single dose he was given Friday of an experimental drug from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. that supplies antibodies to help the immune system fight the virus.
Trump on Friday began a five-day course of remdesivir, a Gilead Sciences antiviral drug currently used for moderately and severely ill patients. The drugs work in different ways — the antibodies help the immune system rid the body of virus, and remdesivir curbs the virus’ ability to multiply.
The National Institutes of Health COVID-19 treatment guidelines recommend against using dexamethasone in patients who do not require supplemental oxygen. It has only been proven to help in more serious cases. Among the concerns with earlier use is that steroids tamp down certain immune cells, hindering the body’s own ability to fight off infection.
Trump is 74 years old and clinically obese, putting him at higher risk of serious complications.