Health officials in New Jersey are scrambling to contact at least 206 people who attended a Thursday fundraiser with President Donald Trump after the Republican National Committee provided only email addresses for those on the guest list, according to two people familiar with the effort.
The attendee list provided by the RNC didn’t include phone numbers or physical addresses — something health officials interviewed by POLITICO said will be necessary to quickly alert individuals of potential exposure to the coronavirus. The president, who is now hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, announced early Friday he has tested positive for Covid-19 — just hours after attending the event at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
“DOH has reached out to these individuals to make them aware of possible exposure and recommend that they self-monitor for symptoms and quarantine if they were in close contact with the President and his staff,” the state Department of Health tweeted on Sunday.
While state and local health officials were able to begin interviewing staff who worked at Thursday’s fundraiser, experts say it will take longer to reach guests because email addresses aren’t considered a sufficient basis from which to launch such a large and urgent contact tracing process.
“Ideally you want as many pieces of information as possible,” said Rutgers University public health school Dean Perry Halkitis, who oversaw the development of New Jersey’s contact tracing training program. “An email may be adequate for some of those, but it may not be adequate for all of those who don’t check their email regularly.”
At this point, given the deluge of news about Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and the accompanying timeline of when he may have become infected, it’s extremely unlikely that any of those who paid to attend the fundraiser would be unaware of their risk of exposure. But any hiccup around contact tracing, a process that also notifies those at risk of how to quarantine and where to get tested, has the potential to exacerbate outbreaks in a state that’s started to see a resurgence of the virus after months of relatively positive public health data.
“The goal of contact tracing is to reach as many contacts AS QUICKLY as possible, who may have been in contact with an infected person, or in this case, potentially more than one infected person,” Dr. Lisa Lieberman, the chair of the public health department at Montclair State University, wrote in an email on Sunday. “To effectively and rapidly reduce the risk of further spread, the organizers should provide whatever information they have that would expedite contact- emails, multiple phone numbers (cell, home, etc), and addresses.”
Trump’s diagnosis sent health officials across four states scrambling for contact tracing data in the hopes of stanching major outbreaks. Trump held fundraisers and rallies in Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the past week and debated former Vice President Joe Biden in Ohio on Tuesday.
The speed with which new cases linked to the White House and Trump’s campaign were announced often outpaced official channels. Minnesota health officials learned of Trump’s positive test from media reports, and as of Friday afternoon no one from the Trump administration or campaign had reached out, according to Kris Ehresmann, the sate‘s director of infectious disease and epidemiology.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday afternoon said that both the RNC, which hosted the $2,800-per-ticket fundraiser for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising effort for the campaign, RNC and state parties, and White House officials had put forth “a spirit of complete cooperation” in contact tracing. Trump had held the high-dollar fundraiser at his golf club even after Hope Hicks, a close White House aide with whom the president had been in contact, tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday.
Murphy also said Friday that the state wasn’t ruling out the event had violated the state’s rules for indoor activities and social distancing. On Saturday, Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, tweeted that a buffet that reportedly was available to some donors was specifically barred by one of the governor’s executive orders.
The two sources, who are also familiar with state and local enforcement efforts around the event, confirmed state officials are looking into the club’s practices to ensure social distancing rules had been followed. A spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s Office declined to comment “on an alleged violation.”
Shortly after Murphy spoke on Friday, state and local health officials received the attendee list and accompanying email addresses, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. The state Department of Health said the list was provided by the White House.
In a statement Sunday, the RNC said the Bedminster site was professionally cleaned and sanitized prior to the event and that attendees had to test negative — and withstand review from both the White House Medical Unit and U.S. Secret Service — prior to showing up.
“On Friday morning, we notified all attendees of the president’s widely-reported test results. We also sent Gov. Murphy’s office a list of attendee’s names and email addresses and they acknowledged receipt. The state never asked for anything else, but since they leaked all of the details that we provided to the press, we are not inclined to give them additional personal information,” RNC Communications Director Michael Ahearns told POLITICO on Sunday afternoon.
Matt Friedman contributed to this report.