US vice president Mike Pence planned to press ahead with campaigning after multiple close aides tested positive for the coronavirus, as the pandemic remained front and centre in the presidential race.
With nine days to go before the November 3rd election in which Democrat Joe Biden is challenging Republican president Donald Trump, the White House cited Mr Pence's status as an "essential worker" as justification for his travel despite exposure to his chief of staff, Marc Short, who tested positive on Saturday.
Multiple senior aides to Mr Pence have tested positive for Covid-19, the White House chief of staff said. CNN and other US news outlets reported at least five of the vice president's close staff have tested positive.
New nationwide infections have soared to record numbers in recent days amid a pandemic that has killed 225,000 Americans.
— John Santucci (@Santucci) October 25, 2020
In addition to dominating the campaign policy debate – with Trump insisting the United States is "rounding the turn" on the crisis while Biden has blasted Trump's disjointed response – the pandemic has changed Americans' voting habits, with 58.7 million ballots already cast.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters that White House doctors have cleared Mr Pence to travel after Mr Short tested positive. Mr Pence is scheduled to address rallies in Kinston, North Carolina, later on Sunday and in Hibbing, Minnesota, on Monday.
While Mr Biden holds a wide lead in national opinion polls, polls show closer contests in those two key states.
Devin O'Malley, a spokesman for the vice president, said on Saturday that Mr Pence and his wife both had tested negative and that Pence would maintain his schedule "in accordance with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for essential personnel."
Public health advice
It was the latest reminder of the way that Trump – who was admitted to hospital for three nights this month after contracting Covid-19 – and those around him have downplayed the advice of public health experts to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines to stem transmission of the virus.
In an appearance on the CNN programme State of the Union, Mr Meadows on Sunday cited the "essential personnel" distinction for Pence as justification for the vice president not adhering to CDC guidelines for isolation after potential exposure to an infected person.
He said said Mr Pence would continue to campaign and speak at rallies.
"I spoke to the vice president last night at midnight," Mr Meadows told CNN. "And what I can tell you he's doing is wearing a mask, socially distancing, and when he goes up to speak he will take the mask off and put it back on."
He declined to say whether Mr Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force, would be tested daily going forward, but did say "we do test on a regular basis."
Mr Trump has mocked Biden for wearing a protective mask and has addressed packed rallies in which many of his supporters are not wearing masks. Public health experts have said such events with many people in close quarters not wearing masks can facilitate the spread of the virus.
Mr Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, took four days off the campaign trail earlier this month after her communications director tested positive for Covid-19.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who himself caught Covid-19 and was in hospital for a week after spending several days at the White House without wearing a mask, on Sunday said he was "surprised" Mr Pence would continue campaigning.
"Everybody's gotta put the health of the people they're going to be in touch with first," he told ABC's This Week programme.
The United States set a single-day record of more than 84,000 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, with the spike in infections hitting election swing states Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.