Creating a COVID-19-free White House

WASHINGTON (AP) – Three blocks from the White House is office space for more than 500 Biden transition executives. The government is shipping laptops for staff to work from home. President elect Joe Bidensurrounded by only a handful of Delaware assistants, uses Zoom to oversee his plans to take power.

But Biden will soon enter a no-Zoom zone in the White House – just a sign of the challenges his new administration will face when it moves to Washington amid a pandemic..

After months of virtue of the cautious approach his campaign and transition team have taken to COVID-19, Biden’s caution will be tested by technology and tradition when he arrives January 20..

Computers in the White House do not allow the popular video conferencing software Zoom or competing systems such as Google Meet and Slack. Government cell phones only got text messaging capabilities a few years ago. And many employees will have to be in the White House to access classified information.

Biden’s team has limited experience manning a physical office during the pandemic. His campaign went completely virtual in mid-March, clearing the Philadelphia headquarters and returning staff to their families in Washington, New York, and beyond. His transition team mapped out his path to power completely online.

Biden’s closest team to experiment with personal work was Election Night, when a small roster of masked and socially distant aides in Wilmington, Delaware, watched the return to hotel conference rooms far away of running a White House 24/7.

Even today, the most prominent use of the more than 100,000 square feet (9,290 square meters) of office space set aside for the transition is that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris receives the highly classified President’s Daily Brief..

Telecommuting is possible for some White House employees, and improvements have been made in both secure and unclassified video conferencing over the past two decades. But the lack of personal coordination can pose an additional challenge for the new government facing a host of crises.

To complicate matters further, the Biden team has to create health and safety protocols from scratch. The Trump administration was, at best, a cautionary tale of how not to run a workplace during a pandemic.

Despite relying on an aggressive testing regime unavailable in other workplaces, the West Wing under President Donald Trump has been the site of at least two significant outbreaks of COVID-19 since Trump himself came up with the virus. five weeks before election day.

In addition to the first family, the dozen in the Trump world who have tested positive include the White House Chief of Staff, the vice president’s chief of staff, the White House press secretary and the president’s campaign manager. Even more assistants had to isolate after possible exposure. The full extent of the infections is not publicly known.

The problems stemmed largely from the Trump White House ignoring its own guidelines for COVID-19 safety, including holding major events, allowing for a lot of travel and, above all, not requiring face masks. The Biden team believes that some of the biggest risks can be mitigated simply by following scientific advice: organize safer events, require face coverings, and continue regular testing.

White House veterans say the task of making the West Wing a safe workspace is achievable, but requires intense discipline, both among White House staff and the hundreds of government employees from other federal agencies who support it.

Detailed planning is still underway, but some early considerations are to limit the number of staffers with unfettered access to the West Wing, encourage remote work where possible, and even allow staffers to use secure teleconferencing between individual offices to minimize the use of shared spaces.

Biden’s team may get some sort of blueprint for using COVID-19 vaccines from the Trump White House, which is starting to roll out vaccinations for a number of critical government employees, including the president’s military aides, Secret Service agents, and watch officers of the Situation Room. .

It appears that Biden himself is likely to receive at least a first dose of the vaccine before taking office, relying on the advice of America’s top infectious disease expert. Dr. Anthony Fauci called on Biden and Harris to get the vaccine quickly.

“For safety reasons, I really believe we should get them vaccinated as soon as possible,” Fauci told ABC News Tuesday. “You want him to be fully protected when he becomes president in January.”

Moving the Bidens to the White House – a stressful process even in normal times – will be more complicated this year.

The West Wing will be cleaned from top to bottom in the hours after Trump leaves the property and before Biden’s team moves in. Public health experts say it is critical that additional measures are taken to reduce the spread of the disease during that switch. .

A former official said the White House ventilation system, hardened against chemical and biological threats, is less of a concern than in typical buildings, but the Biden team is not taking any chances.

“The two things to think about are cleaning all surfaces, especially places that are touched a lot like doorknobs … and aerosol transmission and the possibility of aerosols getting stuck in the air between the two transitions if someone out there is currently sick, “said Dr. Abraar Karan, a global health specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Full air circulation, filtration and open ventilation will be important between the cleaning up and moving in the new presidential family.”

Typically, the entire move is completed in about five or six hours, said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” For security reasons, the move day is conducted by White House domestic workers – a company that employs everyone from construction engineers to kitchen staff.

“In the past, there was literally one moving truck at the South Lawn entrance and one at the North entrance,” she said. “It really is an all hands on deck situation.”


Madhani reported from Wilmington, Del.