Last weekend, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, skipped out on the daily news briefings where she has been a fixture at President Donald Trump’s side. Having developed a low-grade fever, Birx, a physician, submitted to a coronavirus test and, though the result was negative, stayed home two days out of caution.
Birx offered the anecdote as an example of the kind of personal safeguards she said would help Americans “protect one another” amid the pandemic crisis. But it also served as a reminder of an uncomfortable fact that has underscored the risks of a pathogen that has proved more lethal and debilitating for older Americans. Birx, 63, is among the tableau of public officials mounting the national response to the fast-spreading disease who are squarely within the age range of the most at-risk segments of the population.
From Trump, 73, and Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the White House to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who turns 80 on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 78, and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., 69, on Capitol Hill to Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, 77, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 78, many of the nation’s most influential politicians and policymakers could be especially vulnerable to the worst of a viral infection that has ravaged elderly communities in China, Italy, New York and Washington state.
As these leaders debate the course of action for an anxious nation, their own heightened risks of exposure have raised questions about the readiness of the nation’s political and governing infrastructure to withstand a destabilizing and unpredictable pandemic.
“I think that both parties and all branches and levels of government have done a woefully terrible job preparing for a situation like this,” said Judd Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings Institution. “There should be protocols in place in Congress and state legislatures and within the White House and the Supreme Court for how to handle a viral pandemic. . . . It’s a serious national security issue over the continuance of governing.”
Studies in China, South Korea, Italy and the United States have shown that while coronavirus can sicken people of all ages, the illness is especially dangerous for those in their 60s, 70s and 80s. A report from the Centers for Disease Control of virus deaths in the United States, for example, found that 80 percent of deaths were among people 65 and older.
The threat the virus could wreak havoc on American’s governing institutions has become more acute in recent days amid news that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., 57, and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., 58, and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, 45, have tested positive for coronavirus and quarantined themselves for treatment.
Republican lawmakers who recently interacted with them or other confirmed carriers, including four senators and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., 54, the House minority whip who was severely wounded in a shooting three years ago, entered self-quarantine out of caution – effectively erasing the GOP’s Senate majority amid debate over a coronavirus emergency stimulus bill.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., 59, who had crisscrossed the country while running for the Democratic presidential nomination before withdrawing from the race three weeks ago, announced Monday her husband has the virus.
The virus is striking “quite close to home,” Trump said Sunday, offering support for Paul and Diaz-Balart during a White House briefing on one of the days Birx was absent.
“There’s a whole series of questions of how this is all going to work assuming we agree that some sort of social distancing will be in place for some time,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a liberal think tank. “Will the president even meet with leaders of Congress any longer? Can they have face-to-face meetings to work out negotiations? Will people use video conferencing more? As government adapts to the age of social distancing, it’s the nature of Congress to have people packed together, but how will you bring people together if you can’t actually be together?”
In the House, the average age of lawmakers is nearly 58, while in the Senate it is almost 63. Six of the nation’s nine Supreme Court justices are 65 or older, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, who last summer underwent a three-week course of radiation when a tumor was discovered on her pancreas, and Stephen Breyer, 81.
After a sluggish start, the nation’s governing institutions have ramped up actions aimed at preventing the spread in their ranks.
Kathleen Arberg, a spokeswoman for the high court, said the justices held their private conference Friday to review petitions, with an unspecified number of the nine participating by telephone. All are healthy, she said, but there was another change in routine to limit potential exposure to the virus: “The justices are temporarily foregoing their traditional handshake.”
The court is closed to the public, and the justices have indefinitely postponed two weeks of oral arguments that were scheduled to begin Monday. It is the first time the court has paused its work since 1918, when the 1918 flu pandemic epidemic hit Washington.
The 2020 election campaign rallies for Trump and his Democratic rivals have been called off indefinitely. Biden delivered his first set of awkwardly staged remarks from a new, makeshift television studio in his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and he told reporters that aides wear gloves and masks around him out of precaution.
At the White House, Trump had been flaunting public health guidelines as recently as two weeks ago with a weekend visit to mingle with hundreds of Republican donors and other guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Recently, public tours have been canceled and visitors, including reporters, are having their temperatures taken on a daily basis.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have taken steps to minimize group meetings. Schumer has stopped his weekly caucus breakfast and lunch gatherings, substituting conference calls, and he and other members have stopped going to the Senate gym, where Paul had worked out before learning of his positive test. McConnell last week doubled the voting window from 15 to 30 minutes to try to avoid crowding on the Senate floor.
In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., 80, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., 79, are based in their home districts, doing most of their work by phone, aides said.
Yet the balance between their public responsibility and their own health safeguards has been strained. As the Senate leadership has feverishly worked on the massive emergency stimulus package, top lawmakers have huddled repeatedly with White House officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has shuttled between lawmakers’ offices and the White House.
“There’s a lot of people there who are older by a significant measure who are smart and who are working overtime in midst of this crisis and they are being valorous and courageous and determined in this fight,” said Stephen Morrison, a global health policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who emphasized that Congress should set up more remote-work functionality to safeguard its operations.
“They are setting aside for the moment some noises in their heads that, ‘If I get this, I have a 14 percent chance of dying,'” Morrison added, citing a Chinese study in the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated. “I think people like that are making some sacrifice by putting themselves at a higher risk for the sake of the country.”