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Former Coronavirus Task Force Member Discusses Spread Of Virus Throughout White House


So the White House, in addition to being the presidential residence, is also supposedly one of the world's most secure workplaces. And it's now a coronavirus hotspot. What does that mean for the work that needs to go on there? Olivia Troye organized meetings of the White House Coronavirus Task Force as homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser to Vice President Pence. She left the White House in August, and she joins us this morning. Thank you for being with us.

OLIVIA TROYE: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I first want to ask you if you've heard anything from your former colleagues about the mood inside the administration right now.

TROYE: I have. I'm still in touch with some colleagues inside the White House. I think, you know, it's a very somber mood. I think that, you know, the natural reaction is to be scared of, you know, what comes next. And I think a lot of them are also worried at, you know, who else is going to be testing positive in the next couple days. And we're seeing that sort of - we're seeing this cluster sort of develop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You spoke to our colleague Ari Shapiro this past week about your tenure advising the vice president and why you left the White House. But I want to ask you something a little bit more specific about the nuts and bolts of the West Wing that may help us understand a little bit more about this outbreak. As a workspace, it's pretty crowded, isn't it?

TROYE: It is. I mean, the West Wing - it's a lot smaller than people really realize. People share office spaces. And by office space, I mean, you could be in the size of, you know, a larger home's closet, and there's two people sitting inside of it. So it's tight quarters. You know, there - the president's and the vice president's offices are not that far apart from each other. And, in between, there are staff like Jared Kushner, who is the president's, obviously, son-in-law and others in between. So it's a small space. And it's hard. It's hard to socially distance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. What precautions did the Trump administration mandate for workers in and around the White House? You know, we've seen the pictures of the reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. But I want to know what it looked like day to day and for people working there who aren't high officials.

TROYE: Well, what you saw at that event is really what it was like on a daily basis. Dr. Conley had - the White House doctor and the physician to the president had set guidelines. He had really strongly encouraged the use of masks. We had masks. They had masks placed at the entrance of the West Wing for anyone walking into the area. They encouraged it. But the truth is it was very rare to see any of the staff wear a mask in the building, unfortunately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And was the testing, as far as you know, as regular and widespread as the administration led us to believe?

TROYE: As far as my awareness goes on the testing, I know that immediate staff - if you were seeing the vice president and the president, you were tested on a daily basis. And then cabinet members or people coming in were usually tested before seeing either of them. That was a critical part of it. But there were certainly the majority of the building and the, you know, executive Eisenhower Building and in the West Wing - if you weren't on the immediate inner circle of staff, you were not tested. So there were plenty of people walking around the building who were not getting tested on a daily basis.

Of course, the test that the White House was using is the Abbott test. And there were certainly scenarios that I'm very well aware of the past, you know, six or eight months that I was there on the COVID Task Force, where there were a lot of false negatives and false positives. So the test is not necessarily completely reliable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly, in the few seconds we have left, how much pressure did you feel to toe the party line on the coronavirus, on masks, on business as usual, on the robustness of testing around President Trump?

TROYE: You know, I struggled with that on a daily basis. I felt a sense of duty to, you know - I saw the vice president fairly frequently. I saw him on a daily basis. And I felt a sense of duty to protect him. So, you know, I felt awkward at times when I would wear a mask. Sometimes, I would feel the pressure of everyone else not having one and be the only one in the room. So I would take it off, but I always made it a point to really keep at least 6 feet apart from the vice president and other critical players just because I just - I knew the risk was there. This virus spreads very easily.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Olivia Troye was homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser to Vice President Pence. Thank you very much.

TROYE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.