By Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A political adviser to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is suspected of sparking an outbreak of the coronavirus on his team that sidelined a senior official days before the presidential election, according to a current White House official and a former official familiar with the matter.
Marty Obst, a political strategist for Pence, was determined by contact tracers from the White House Medical Unit to be the likely origin of the outbreak, the two people said.
Obst did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Obst, who does not draw a government salary, accompanied Pence to rallies in Bangor, Maine and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Monday, Oct. 19, the White House official said.
“If you had to pick a patient zero it was Marty and he brought it in from the outside,” the White House official said, declining to be named since he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
A spokesman for Pence said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, had tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend. Pence, who has faced criticism for keeping a busy campaign schedule despite being considered a close contact of Short, has tested negative in the days since.
The outbreak on Pence’s team, which follows closely on the heels of a flurry of cases in President Donald Trump’s inner circle, comes as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are surging across the country.
That has kept Trump’s handling of the virus in the headlines ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Polls show Trump trailing Democratic rival and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is consistently seen by likely voters as better able to handle the pandemic.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Short defended the decision to keep Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, traveling in the final days of the campaign despite his possible exposure.
He noted the White House had encouraged other essential workers, such as ‘blue collar’ meat packers, to keep working even if they had close contact with someone later diagnosed with COVID-19, so they had set the same example.
“I think we’re actually following the guidelines that we established,” Short said, noting that he had experienced symptoms akin to a head cold but now felt good.
While Short was not deemed a close contact of Obst and continued with his regular schedule following Obst’s positive tests, three junior staffers who have since tested positive for the virus were already in quarantine due to exposure to Obst, a third person familiar with the matter said.
The person, who declined to be named, added that Pence has introduced new safety protocols, like wearing a mask on Marine 2, the helicopter that carries the vice president. The source said Pence remains masked and in his cabin during flights on Air Force 2, the name given to any plane carrying him.
“We have canceled regional interviews. He goes straight from the plane onto the stage. He takes his mask off when he gets on the stage. You can see from buffer shots he is about 30 feet away from an audience,” the person added.
The White House official said staff and travelers on Air Force Two are all tested each day and that mask use is constant. The number of staffers traveling with Pence has been dramatically cut and many are self-isolating, the person added.
(Writing by Alexandra Alper, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)