'Safer than your local grocery store': How the Pentagon kept the virus at bay as the White House struggled

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The COVID-19 outbreak sweeping through the White House, most recently among the staff of Vice President Mike Pence, has underlined the fact that in Washington’s halls of power there has been a tale of two pandemics.

The contrast between the chaos the pandemic has wreaked on the White House and the limited impact it has had on the health of the 25,000-strong Pentagon workforce, which has rigorously followed CDC guidelines, could not be more pronounced. President Trump has continually downplayed the severity of the virus and mocked those who took steps to protect themselves from it.

 U.S. President Donald Trump addresses thousands of supporters during a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport October 28, 2020 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) U.S. President Donald Trump addresses thousands of supporters during a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport October 28, 2020 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses thousands of supporters during a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport October 28, 2020 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

By Sunday, at least five people linked to Pence, including his chief of staff, Marc Short, had tested positive for COVID-19. They are only the most recent victims of the disease that seems to have been circulating at the White House since at least early May, when one of Trump’s personal valets tested positive. More recently in the White House complex, where the workforce numbers in the hundreds, rather than the thousands at the Pentagon, an outbreak that blossomed in late September hospitalized the president, sickened the first lady and forced several of Trump’s most senior advisers to quarantine at home after they tested positive.

Meanwhile, 3 miles away in the Pentagon, one of the world’s largest office buildings, life went on.

The Defense Department does not release the numbers of COVID-19 cases at individual installations, but the Pentagon’s numbers are “significantly statistically lower” than those in the surrounding northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., said Tom Muir, director of the Defense Department’s Washington Headquarters Services.

In an interview with Yahoo news, Muir, whose job makes him the unofficial mayor of the Pentagon, listed several factors behind the Pentagon’s success, including an embrace of telework and a disciplined workforce willing to follow orders based on CDC guidance.

From the start, the Defense Department in general, and the Pentagon in particular, took the threat of COVID-19 seriously. On March 15, about two weeks after Trump had predicted that “like a miracle” the virus would “disappear,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised the health protection condition for the Pentagon Reservation from “Alpha” to “Bravo,” reflecting an increased spread of the coronavirus in the surrounding community. (The Pentagon Reservation consists of about 80 buildings in the greater Washington area and has a workforce of 75,000, roughly a third of whom work in the Pentagon building itself.) Eight days later Esper raised it again, to “Charlie,” signifying a sustained COVID-19 transmission in the wider community.

Mark EsperMark Esper
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. (Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images)

Each change brought with it a series of actions in the Pentagon, including a reduction in the number of building entrances and increased cleaning and disinfecting of both public spaces and offices. “Our guidance is aligned with what the CDC believes to be the best science available,” Muir said.

But the most notable difference was an increased reliance on telework.

With the shift to health protection condition (HPCON) Charlie, the number of people coming to work in the Pentagon dropped by about 85 percent, to about 3,750. The remainder worked from home.

What happened next surprised Pentagon managers: Despite the challenges inherent with a workforce that uses a lot of classified material, the productivity of the teleworkers exceeded expectations. “Many employees and their supervisors have found that they’re extremely productive outside of the current workspace,” Muir said. “They’re actually more productive working from home sometimes.”

Many supervisors in the building now rotate their staffs, with individuals coming into the office every other day, according to Muir.

The high number of people working from home freed up large swaths of the Pentagon’s usually jam-packed 67 acres of parking lot, which can fit 8,770 cars. In what Muir acknowledged was “a huge logistics challenge,” he and his staff made the newly empty spaces available to employees who were still coming to work, but who usually carpooled or used public transport to commute (both of which carry a much higher risk of transmission than driving alone).

Even though masks are required on Washington-area mass transit, “we still find that many feel much more comfortable driving themselves, whereas prior to COVID they were exclusively using mass transit to get to the office,” Muir said, adding that he is not aware of anyone who wants to drive to the Pentagon being denied a parking space.

Even before they get in their cars, however, Pentagon employees are expected to take their temperatures at home. An elevated temperature means a worker should stay at home and inform their boss, according to Muir. “We ask them to not come to work if they’re sick or if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19,” he said.

Thermal scanning test (Getty Images)Thermal scanning test (Getty Images)
A driver takes a thermal scanning test. (Getty Images)

When the employees arrive at one of the Pentagon’s many entrances, 10 to 15 percent of them (down from 25 percent at the height of the pandemic) are selected at random to receive no-touch temperature checks and asked a series of questions about any symptoms they might have and whether anyone in their household has been diagnosed with, or might have, COVID-19. “If the answer to any of those questions is yes, we refer them to secondary screening,” while contacting the employee’s supervisor who directs him or her to return home immediately and to see a doctor, Muir said. “We do not allow them entrance to the Pentagon.”

Inside the building, things have also changed significantly. No more than two people are allowed in an elevator at one time, and people must stand at least 6 feet apart on the building’s 19 escalators, with no passing allowed, according to Muir.

Throughout the building’s 17.5 miles of corridors, signs tell readers to maintain social distancing, wear their masks and wash their hands. That behavior “is engrained now in our daily work activity,” Muir said. There are hand sanitizer stations at every entrance, as well as at most offices and conference rooms, he said.

Visitors from the White House complex adhere to the same standards as Defense Department employees, according to Muir, who at no time compared the steps the Pentagon has taken to those the White House has or has not chosen to adopt. Because so many White House personnel are tested frequently, “there’s not a requirement for them to get tested before they come here,” he said. However, “we do test many of our senior leaders prior to them visiting the White House,” he added.

At the White House, by contrast, Trump continues to hold packed meetings in the Oval Office.

Donald Trump, centerDonald Trump, center
President Trump during a news conference in the Oval Office on Friday. (Leigh Vogel/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Throughout the Pentagon, crews have been installing plexiglass shields, first for workers whose jobs require them to deal face to face with people, and then for other workspaces, Muir said. In addition, cleaning crews are routinely disinfecting surfaces, as opposed to their previous practice of just dusting them, according to Muir. “We’ve increased our cleaning of bathrooms, common areas, elevator buttons, escalator rails,” and have also equipped offices with their own cleaning supplies, he said.

The steps the Pentagon has taken have all contributed to what Muir termed a “very effective” effort to prevent any significant outbreaks. “The numbers of COVID-positive cases in the Pentagon have been significantly less than right outside in local counties,” he said. “Evidence has shown that the wearing of masks, the washing of hands and the maintaining of social distance … are very effective to stop community spread, either in the installation or while people are doing their commute.” As a result, Muir said, the Pentagon is now “safer than your local grocery store.”

But no plan is 100 percent foolproof. “There’s no secret bubble around the Pentagon that keeps us immune from COVID,” Muir said. “We have had cases in the Pentagon.”

Muir declined to give exact numbers but said that while “scores” of the Pentagon’s 26,000-member workforce had tested positive since March, between a third and a half of those were cases in which someone caught the disease in their home community while teleworking and did not bring it to the Pentagon. In “a couple of instances,” confirmed cases in the Pentagon involved multiple people from the same office, according to Muir. “Either they share a car together or they share a workspace together,” he said, adding that in those cases, all the workers from the office are told to telework.

Whether it’s a single individual who tests positive or a mini outbreak, each COVID-19 case in the Pentagon itself prompts a “very aggressive action” in response, according to Muir. As soon as someone who works in a Pentagon office tests positive, that office is immediately notified and temporarily shut down so that it can be deep cleaned while the contact tracers go to work, he said.

“We’ve got a very robust contact-tracing program” that operates out of the Pentagon’s on-site medical clinic, Muir said. Led by the clinic’s medical staff, the “eight or nine” full-time contact tracers have a 24-hour standard for reaching out to everyone who has been in close proximity with someone who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, he added.

The contact tracers are helped by the fact that everyone who works in the building uses a Defense Department common access card that unlocks both doors and work computers. “We know when you come into the Pentagon entrance, we know when you badge into your office, we know when you log onto your computer, we know when you leave your office, we know when you badge out” of the building, Muir said. “We’ve got a pretty good read on where you’ve been during the time period that you may have been positive.”

Mark MillerMark Miller
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Capitol. (Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The most high-profile Pentagon personnel to be forced to work from home have been members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of whom went into quarantine earlier this month after attending meetings with a Coast Guard admiral who had tested positive. The irony, however, was that circumstantial evidence suggested that the admiral had contracted the disease while visiting the White House.

Unlike their Pentagon counterparts, officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are reluctant to discuss the details of their efforts to prevent spread of the coronavirus. The press office, which was hard hit by the outbreak, declined even to say how many people worked at the White House complex, let alone how many were teleworking, referring questions on such matters to the Office of Personnel Management, which did not respond to requests for comment.

“President Trump’s top priority has been the health and safety of the American people, which is why we have incorporated current CDC guidance and best practices for limiting COVID-19 exposure to the greatest extent possible, including staying home if you are positive or have symptoms, social distancing, good hygiene, regular deep cleaning of all work spaces and face coverings,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement to Yahoo News.

Deere said the “White House Medical Unit leads a robust contact tracing program with CDC personnel and guidance to stop ongoing transmission,” and added that anyone expected to come in contact with the president is tested beforehand. 

As at the Pentagon, not everyone who enters the White House complex is tested or has their temperature checked. But Pence’s recent behavior has been in marked contrast to that of the Joint Chiefs following their meetings with the Coast Guard admiral. Choosing not to self-isolate, despite having exposure to Short, his chief of staff who tested positive, the vice president instead immediately returned to the campaign trail.

The White House insists it is hewing closely to the CDC’s guidelines, but Pence’s refusal to quarantine is just the latest in a long line of White House actions that seem to contradict CDC guidelines.

Mike PenceMike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence in Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday. (Grant Baldwin/AFP via Getty Images)

For example, Trump returned to his office from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center within days of testing positive. The vice president’s rally in Minnesota on Monday, like many Trump campaign events, violated local social distancing regulations. According to the press pool, masks were distributed at the event and temperatures were checked, but it also featured a packed crowd of “more than 650 people,” well over the cap of 250 allowed by state guidelines. Back in Washington, there have been multiple large events in the White House at which staff and visitors have gone unmasked, including some after the recent outbreak. Testing, while likely more widespread than in the Pentagon, given the smaller staff and higher priority, is not universal.

Deere noted many White House staffers are considered essential workers, who the CDC says “may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19.” However, the CDC adds that this should only be allowed “provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”

One of the most striking differences between the Pentagon and White House may be in the use of masks. While Pentagon employees are required to wear masks in public spaces and whenever they are unable to maintain 6 feet of separation in workspaces, at the White House, the staff is often seen without face coverings. 

Deere indicated the sporadic mask use was in line with best practices. “The White House follows CDC guidance for face coverings — recommended but not required,” he said. However, the CDC, which does not have the authority to require people to wear masks, only to recommend that they do, in fact recommends that Americans wear masks “anywhere they will be around other people.”

The White House, like the Pentagon, refuses to say how many staffers have tested positive for COVID-19. But according to an Oct. 7 ABC News report, a Federal Emergency Management Agency memo said that “34 White House staffers and other contacts” were infected. That number presumably does not include the Pence staffers who have tested positive more recently.

Pentagon buildingPentagon building
The Pentagon, one of the world’s largest office buildings. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is looking ahead to a future that likely involves a much higher percentage of the workforce telecommuting than was the case before the pandemic. Defense Secretary Esper’s decision to revert to HPCON Bravo on June 29 was expected to result in about 80 percent of employees working in the building. But so far, that number is steady at 60 percent, meaning that roughly 10,000 Pentagon workers are still telecommuting, according to Muir.

In some cases, these are workers who are either in vulnerable populations themselves due to underlying health conditions or who have such a person in their immediate family. The Defense Department wants those people to stay home for now, according to Muir, who predicted that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Pentagon in much the same way that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed life in the building.

“We all long for the day when we can go back to the way things were,” Muir said. “But I don’t think we’ll ever be there.”

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