Tracking potential COVID exposure at Trump NJ fundraiser: Faint help from feds

State and county officials had reached 184 of 206 guests by Monday. Some were not receptive, Gov. Phil Murphy said
Credit: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Oct. 1, 2020: President Donald Trump walked from Marine One to the White House after returning from Bedminster, New Jersey.

One in ten of those who attended President Trump’s New Jersey fundraiser last week have been notified that they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus, according to state officials who called for greater federal assistance to help protect against a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the wake of the l visit.

But during a media briefing Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy criticized the inadequate federal response to the event, which took place Thursday at the Trump-owned golf club in Bedminster.

The president announced on Twitter less than 12 hours after the fundraiser that he had tested positive for the virus.

“It’s at a moment like this that you need as robust a federal response as we have had at the state level,” Murphy said. “We just haven’t had the level — as robust a partnership as we want,” he added, while declining to elaborate.

It appears the bulk of the contact tracing of those present at the event — connecting with individuals who potentially were exposed, educating them on the risk and the need to quarantine, and identifying who else they may have put at risk — has been left to state and county officials. Bedminster does not have a public health department of its own.

WATCH MORE: Murphy says Trump put lives at risk by holding NJ fundraiser

By Friday afternoon public health officials from the state Department of Health and Somerset County had obtained a list of the 206 guests at the event, Murphy explained, and they have been able to reach all but 22 of these. Roughly half of the guests live in New Jersey, he noted, while others traveled from Arizona, Indiana and Texas to attend.

State and county officials also received a list of 19 golf club employees who were at work during the event last week, Murphy said; all are New Jersey residents and most live in Somerset County, where health department officials said Sunday they were “interviewing staff members of the club and assessing the level of contact they had with the President and his staff and providing public health recommendations accordingly.”

Following up on employees

On Monday, State Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said all the employees had since been reached. County officials are “spending a lot of time first and foremost following up on the employees” at the club, she said, “and that’s certainly the highest priority.”

Those who may have been within 6 feet of the president for at least 10 minutes were advised to self-quarantine for two weeks and watch for COVID-19 symptoms, according to Somerset County officials. The health department urged them to wait between five and seven days to get tested to allow the virus time to develop enough to be identified.

After learning of the president’s diagnosis on Friday morning, Murphy said he quickly reached out to the White House to offer his prayers to Trump and the first lady Melania Trump, who also had tested positive and has been recovering at the White House. (The president was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center late Friday, where he remained until Monday evening when he returned to the White House.) Murphy said he also asked Trump officials about coordinating a response, but suggested information and assistance were slow in coming.

Eventually, the Republican National Committee provided a list of event attendees, Murphy said, but it included names and email addresses only, not telephone numbers or other contact information. State and county staff had reached 184 of the guests by Monday, he said, and are also working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he said is ready to help them reach the remaining 22 individuals, if needed.

Persichilli said some of the individuals contacted were grateful for the state’s efforts to warn them. “Some were not so positive,” Murphy added, “including, ‘How did you get my name?’ The Republican National Committee, for anyone who is watching, is how we got your name. And we need even more than we got from the Republican National Committee.”

In violation of public health orders?

The event may have violated several of Murphy’s public health orders, he said, including a limit on the size of indoor gatherings and a ban on buffet-style food service. The state Attorney General’s Office is now investigating, he noted.

Video report on Gov. Phil Murphy’s response

“That trip was completely unacceptable, completely reckless and completely uncalled for,” Murphy said at the Monday media briefing. “This never should have happened,” he said of the fundraiser. “This isn’t a matter of politics, but a matter of humanity.”

“We already have challenges. We don’t need folks coming in, knowingly exposed to a COVID-positive individual and then be in the midst of a couple hundred people in New Jersey,” Murphy said. Presidential adviser Hope Hicks, who accompanied Trump to other events last week, tested positive last Wednesday, according to reports.

Murphy announced Monday that new coronavirus cases have continued to spike in several counties, including Ocean and Monmouth.

Nearly 209,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March, including well over 14,300 who have died; Somerset County, which includes Bedminster, accounts for just over 5,900 cases and at least 500 deaths and cases there are currently rising slowly.

Contact tracing is a struggle

Despite the urgency required to contain a potential outbreak, New Jersey’s contact tracers have generally struggled to connect with COVID-positive individuals within their 24-hour goal, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, and less than half of those they reach reveal who else they may have infected. Details on what percentage of Trump’s golf club guests participated in the process and shared additional contact information were not available Monday.

In recent months New Jersey has been beefing up its contact-tracing workforce, a group of nearly 1,900 tracers deployed by county or local officials as needed. Somerset County has 70 contact tracers, according to the state dashboard, or approximately 21 tracers per 100,000 residents — the county average, statewide. State health officials plan to expand to 30 tracers per 100,000 people in all counties, a level only Passaic and Salem counties have yet to achieve. It is not clear how many tracers were assigned to track potential spread from the Trump fundraiser.