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WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence was hoping to use a trip to Iowa on Friday to promote efforts to reopen the economy and demonstrate that life is returning to normal across the country amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Those plans started to unravel before he even left Washington.
A member of Pence’s staff, press secretary Katie Miller, tested positive for coronavirus just as the vice president was about to depart, delaying his plane for an hour.
On Saturday, three key members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were reported to be self-quarantining after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Friday's revelation came just one day after the White House disclosed that a military valet to President Donald Trump also tested positive for the virus. Later on Friday, a person familiar with the matter said 11 Secret Service employees currently have the virus.
On the ground in Iowa, the vice president’s appearances did little to reinforce a return to normalcy. Attendees at a roundtable discussion on securing the nation’s food supply awaited Pence’s arrival by sitting in chairs spaced far apart in a nod to social distancing guidelines that aim to slow the spread of the disease. A conversation between Pence and religious leaders about reopening houses of worship unfolded in a nearly empty church.
"By God's grace, the faith of the American people... we'll get through this, sooner rather than later,” Pence said. “We'll get America working again. We'll get America worshipping again."
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The White House's efforts to project a sense of normalcy in order to persuade Americans to move past coronavirus have often been complicated by the virus itself. The administration has held several carefully orchestrated events in recent days to promote such an image, including a series of Oval Office meetings between Trump and governors, nurses and business leaders. But often, such outings end up underscoring the virus' grip on American life.
One way Trump and Pence have tried to present a post-COVID-19 America: resuming travel outside of Washington.
Trump went to Phoenix on Tuesday – his most extensive trip since the start of the pandemic – where he toured a Honeywell aerospace facility that makes respirator masks. But Trump made headlines for not wearing a face mask during the tour, despite a requirement that masks be worn on the site. Trump later told reporters he wore a mask briefly.
On Friday, while Pence was in Iowa, Trump laid a wreath at the World War II Memorial in Washington and chatted with eight war veterans commemorating the end of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Trump stood several feet away but did not wear a mask, raising questions about the safety of the veterans who ranged in age from 96 to 100.
Later, Trump hosted congressional Republicans at the White House for a meeting in which they discussed the economy and the administration's response to the pandemic. During the meeting, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, chose to defend the gathering's absence of face masks and social distancing. He suggested that nobody in the room had coronavirus “unless it’s someone in the media.”
Despite the business-as-usual attitude, the White House had to put in place additional protective measures after the revelations that Miller and Trump's valet tested positive for the disease.
Trump said White House aides will be tested for the virus daily instead of weekly. He said the valet was in the room with him on Tuesday, the day he began exhibiting symptoms, but that he did not recall any direct contact with him.
Regardless, Trump said he has been tested twice in recent days and that both tests came back negative.
Pence's Iowa trip had all the makings of a routine vice presidential getaway until Miller tested positive.
A senior administration official traveling with Pence said a staffer tested positive Friday morning after testing negative the day before. The ill aide was not scheduled to fly with Pence but had been in contact with six people who were scheduled to make the trip. Those staffers were removed from the plane before departure and later tested for the virus. All of the tests were negative, the official said.
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Multiple media reports identified the staffer who tested positive for coronavirus as Miller, Pence's press secretary and the wife of Stephen Miller, a Trump senior adviser known for his hard-line stance on immigration. NBC News reported that Katie Miller confirmed she received the positive diagnosis.
At the White House, Trump also identified the ill staffer as "Katie" during his roundtable discussion with congressional Republicans. Two administration officials later confirmed he was referring to Katie Miller.
"I'm doing well and look forward to getting back to work for the American people," Miller tweeted Friday evening.
Within the Secret Service, the virus appears to have spread. On top of the 11 employees currently with the virus, another 23 are recovering and 60 are in quarantine, according to a person familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak publicly.
The person declined to breakdown the number of infections between civilian staffers and agents, and did not specify where the employees are assigned. The Secret Service has 7,600 employees, 3,000 of which are agents.
Still, despite the virus rearing its head nearly daily, Trump has been insistent on returning to normal, telling reporters after his Honeywell trip that to a certain extent he sees Americans as "warriors" as officials move to reopen the economy.
"Will some people be affected? Yes," he said. "Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon."
Trump and Pence aren't the only administration officials eager to return to normal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Israel next week, his first trip in about seven weeks as the coronavirus pandemic grounded the nation's top diplomat along with the rest of the world. The trip will be a quick, controlled visit, with Pompeo's interactions limited to individuals who have been tested for the virus or screened for symptoms, a top State Department physician said in a briefing with reporters on Friday.
In another sign that normalcy has yet to return even to the White House, Friday marked the first day that all reporters attending a White House briefing wore face masks, even while asking questions.
A day earlier, Trump noted during an Oval Office encounter with reporters that "a lot of the reporters aren’t wearing masks." The White House staff did not ask the reporters to wear the masks Friday.
Contributing: John Fritze, David Jackson, Deirdre Shesgreen.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Mike Pence aide tests positive for COVID-19