President Donald Trump on Monday left the military hospital where he has been treated for COVID-19 and boarded a helicopter to return to a White House hit by a wave of infections and a campaign further shadowed by the pandemic four weeks before Election Day.
Wearing what appeared to be a white surgical mask, Trump pumped his fist and gave a thumbs up as he walked down the steps of the Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington, responding to a reporter's question about how many people were infected at the White House by saying: "Thank you very much."
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Though his doctors said he still was not "out of the woods," Trump appeared maskless and defiant in a video released shortly after he returned to the White House.
"Don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of it," Trump said. "We're going back, we're going back to work. We're going to be out front. ... Don't let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful."
Earlier, Trump said he’s feeling good and the nation should not be afraid of the virus that has killed more than 209,000 Americans.
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Less than two hours after U.S. President Donald Trump returned to the White House after three days in hospital being treated for coronavirus, rival Joe Biden criticized the president anew for downplaying the seriousness of the virus.
"I would hope that the president, having gone through what he went through - and I'm glad he seems to be coming along pretty well - would communicate the right lesson to the American people: Masks matter," Biden said at a NBC News town hall from Miami, Florida.
Biden's NBC primetime appearance capped a day of campaigning in the crucial state of Florida, widely seen as a must-win for Trump's re-election campaign ahead of the November 3 election.
"Folks, if we win Florida, you've won," Biden said during an earlier visit to the neighborhood of Little Haiti. "You've flat won."
Trump’s return comes as the scale of the outbreak within 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.
“I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M.,” Trump tweeted. “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. ... I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
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.
Only a day earlier, Trump suggested he had finally grasped the true nature of the virus, saying in a video, “I get it.”
It was unclear how long Trump would remain in isolation at the White House. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those with mild to moderate symptoms can be contagious for as many — and should isolate for at least — 10 days.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump briefly ventured out of the hospital while contagious to salute cheering supporters by motorcade — an outing that disregarded precautions meant to contain the virus.
White House officials said Trump was anxious to be released after three nights at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, 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.
Trump “is ready to get back to a normal work schedule,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News.
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. He has a team of doctors at the White House, 24-hour monitoring, and has been given experimental drugs not readily available to the public.
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 by 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 fueled confusion about Trump’s health, which has imperiled the leadership of the U.S. government and upended the final stages of the presidential campaign. 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.
In a short video released by the White House on Sunday, Trump insisted he understood the gravity of the moment. But his actions moments later, by leaving the hospital and sitting inside the SUV with others, suggested otherwise.
McEnany spoke briefly with reporters Sunday evening without wearing a mask, but said that no members of the White House press corps spent enough time around her to be considered close contacts.
Joe Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, said the Democratic presidential nominee again tested negative for coronavirus Sunday. The results came 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 — and has been mocked repeatedly for it by Trump — had two negative tests on Friday.
Trump’s doctors sidestepped questions on Sunday about exactly when his blood oxygen dropped — episodes they neglected to mention in multiple statements the day before — or whether lung scans showed any damage.
It was the second straight day of obfuscation from a White House already suffering from a credibility crisis. And it raised more doubts about whether the doctors treating the president were sharing accurate, timely information with the American public about the severity of his condition.
Even before Trump’s motorcade outing on Sunday, some Secret Service agents had expressed concern about the lackadaisical attitude toward masks and social distancing inside the White House, but there isn’t much they can do, according to agents and officials who spoke to The Associated Press. This close to the election, thousands of agents are engaged on protective duty so they can be subbed out quickly should someone test positive.
According to CDC guidelines, in general, transport and movement of a patient with suspected or confirmed infection of the virus that causes COVID-19 “outside of their room should be limited to medically essential purposes.”
The disclosures about Trump’s oxygen levels and steroid treatment suggested the president is enduring more than a mild case of COVID-19.
Signs of pneumonia or other lung damage could be detected in scans before a patient feels short of breath, but the president’s doctors declined to say what those scans have revealed.
Asked about Conley’s lack of transparency, White House aide Alyssa Farah suggested the doctors were speaking as much to the president as to the American public, “when you’re treating a patient, you want to project confidence, you want to lift their spirits, and that was the intent.”
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In all, nearly 7.4 million people have been infected in the United States, and few have access to the kind of around-the-clock attention and experimental treatments as Trump.
Trump’s treatment with the steroid 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 also began a five-day course of remdesivir, a Gilead Sciences 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 steroid’s use 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.
First lady Melania Trump has remained at the White House as she recovers from her own bout with the virus.
Many in the White House are also shaken and scared — nervous that they have been exposed to the virus and confronting the reality that what seemed like a bubble of safety has become a COVID-19 hot spot. It took until late Sunday for the White House to send a generic note to staffers suggesting they not come to the building if they do not feel well.