WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's return to the White House Monday evening put people who work in the building at an increased risk of catching COVID-19, the disease that had killed over 210,000 Americans, doctors and health officials say.
The most exposed may be the approximately half dozen White House butlers who work on the second floor, where the private family residence is, say former staffers and a White House expert.
These jobs have traditionally been held by mostly African-American men who often remained in the position for decades, explains Kate Andersen Brower, author of "The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House."
These men serve food directly to the First Family and are required to interact with them more closely and personally than nearly anyone else in the building, Andersen Brower said.
Trump said he and his wife, Melania, tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.
Eugene Allen, who held the job under eight presidents, was immortalized https://uk.reuters.com/article/film-the-butler-idINDEE97C0B820130813 in the 2013 movie "The Butler," starring Forest Whitaker, that traced U.S. history from a deeply divided South in the 1920s, through desegregation, to the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president.
The positions are filled by word-of-mouth – an existing butler would recommend a nephew or a cousin for the job, Andersen Brower noted. Discretion is valued, and White House staff who interact with the First Family almost never speak to the press.
Another handful of housekeepers, generally women, work directly in the family residence, changing the presidents’ sheets, doing laundry, and cleaning bathrooms, but they have less personal interaction with the First Family, she noted.
Since Trump and his wife tested positive, the Residence "staff wear full PPE and continue to take all necessary precautions," the Office of the First Lady said Tuesday, including regular testing.
Andersen Brower said she had spoken to several former Residence staff who said they were "terrified" for the health of their ex-colleagues who remain in the job.
The White House also employs dozens more staff, including chefs, valets, butlers, and cleaners, responsible for the upkeep of the over 100-room, six-story building, and taking care of its residents and guests.
At least two of the housekeeping staff have contracted the virus, the New York Times reported Monday.
When the U.S. first shut businesses and travel to stop the spread of the coronavirus in March, many of those permanent staff were given time off, and have been working reduced schedules since as the administration held few official events, according to two people familiar with their schedules.
Another over 400 people work for the Executive Office of the President, according to a July 2020 report https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/July-1-2020-Report-FINAL.pdf to Congress, including travel managers, press secretaries, policy advisers, lawyers, and a chief calligrapher. Not all of those people work directly in the White House building itself.
Several of these office staff, including the White House press secretary, have tested positive for the disease in recent days.
The White House has plans and procedures in place that incorporate current CDC guidelines and best practices for limiting COVID-19 exposure, White House spokesman Judd Deere told Reuters.
(Reporting by Heather Timmons and Daphne Psaledakis, additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)