- Biden and his team are entering a White House that’s thought to have been the site of superspreader events and is tied to dozens of coronavirus cases.
- The General Services Administration says it will “thoroughly clean and disinfect” the White House East Wing and West Wing between administrations.
- But some of Biden’s allies are worried about the safety of the new team heading into the White House.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When a new president enters the White House, he typically takes a seat in the afternoon of Inauguration Day at the same Resolute Desk in the Oval Office that his predecessor used that morning.
Staffers swap out the last president’s toothbrush in the executive residence for the new commander in chief while the inauguration ceremonies happen not too far away.
But this time the White House could be crawling with the coronavirus on Wednesday when the Biden administration moves in hours after President Donald Trump and his team leave.
The General Services Administration, the agency responsible for maintaining federal buildings, is planning to “thoroughly clean and disinfect the building spaces between the administrations and ensure that everything is up to standard,” an agency spokesperson told Insider in a statement.
Between the time Trump and his family and staff exit the White House on Inauguration Day and incoming President Joe Biden’s team enters, GSA said it plans to clean “all furniture, flooring, window treatments, handrails, door knobs, light switches, countertops, elevator buttons, restroom fixtures and dispensers, door handles and push plates, and lighting fixtures.”
Despite the cleaning plans, the possibility for exposure to the virus in a White House that’s connected to dozens of coronavirus cases is causing concern among some of the president-elect’s allies.
“I’ve woken up a couple of times in the middle of the night thinking about this,” said Nicole Lurie, who advised the Biden campaign on its coronavirus response and served as an assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
“The last thing one wants to do is turn Inauguration Day into a superspreader event,” Lurie told Insider.
Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York senator who ran against Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, joked on Twitter that she was sending Biden disinfecting wipes as a housewarming gift.
—Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 23, 2020
Biden, his family, and staff members will be walking into a White House that’s been connected to at least 45 coronavirus cases in recent months, including Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and Mark Meadows, the chief of staff. Biden received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on January 11. The vaccines can reduce the risk of infection by more than 90%, but Biden isn’t necessarily in the clear.
The ex-president will be long gone by the time Biden arrives. Trump left Washington, DC, before Biden even got sworn in on Wednesday.
Inside the White House, it’s possible that the virus could linger in the air or even briefly on surfaces, putting Biden and his team at risk even after Trump’s people leave, public-health experts told Insider. Trump and his staff have consistently flouted federal public-health guidance to wear masks in the White House.
“It’s not a surprise that the Trump administration’s White House has been the site of superspreader events,” said Joseph Allen, a professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Secret Service has been affected too. The Washington Post reported in November that more than 130 Secret Service officers were isolating or quarantining after they tested positive for the coronavirus or were exposed to infected colleagues.
“We’ve seen many pictures and videos of close gatherings — no masks. And we know that when we do these things, whether it’s in the White House or in a restaurant or a choir practice, this is when we see cases happening,” Allen told Insider in an interview.
Public-health experts offered tips for Biden and his team to minimize the risk of infection when they move into the White House on Inauguration Day, including allowing time for ventilation, disinfecting surfaces, and wearing masks inside.
6 hours between presidents
In a typical transition, it takes about six hours to move the old president out and the new one in, said Gary Walters, who was the White House chief usher under four presidents from 1986 to 2007. As the chief usher, he oversaw the operations of the executive residence, the part of the White House that’s the home of the president and the first lady.
Usually, the outgoing president will host the incoming commander in chief for coffee or tea on the morning of Inauguration Day before they head to the Capitol together for the formal swearing-in ceremony.
That didn’t happen this time.
Biden’s swearing-in ceremony took place outside the US Capitol with far smaller crowds than usual. A virtual parade followed while Biden gets a military escort to the White House.
The new first family typically arrives at the residence by 5 or 6 p.m., after the inaugural parade, Walters said. By then, he added, “toiletries are in the bathrooms, and bedding has been changed to their desire, and everything is taken care of.”
The new president can even expect to find his toothbrush in place by the bathroom sink, Walters said.
Late on Inauguration Day, Biden is expected to head to the Oval Office to sign executive orders to repeal Trump’s policies and implement his own — he’s promised to sign clean-energy and ethics orders on day one, for example. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain said in a memo Saturday that Biden will sign about a dozen executive actions on Wednesday.
By the time Biden’s team arrives in the White House in the afternoon, the risk of coronavirus infection should be relatively low, assuming health precautions are taken, health experts said.
Air out the Oval Office
Ventilation will be key to minimizing the risk to Biden and his staff, health experts said.
The biggest infection risk in the White House will be in the transmission of large droplets that fall to the ground or through smaller aerosol particles that tend to linger in the air for longer periods, said Peter Raynor, an environmental-health professor at the University of Minnesota.
“If you’re moving people out and then moving people in, you’re not likely to have much crossover, because there’s going to be some time in between” for the White House ventilation system to clear the air, Raynor said in an interview.
He said a couple of hours between Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival “would probably be enough to remove most of the aerosol particles that might contain infectious virus from the air.”
The White House has a specialized ventilation system designed to detect radiation or a chemical agent. High-tech air filtration can help to prevent coronavirus infections, though it’s not enough to halt transmission on its own.
To boost air circulation, Biden could also crack the windows of Trump’s former office on day one, said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Clinton White House.
She said it would be important for Biden to be seen getting to work in the Oval Office, where he can open all the windows and the doors “and get it nice and aired out.”
Biden and his team won’t need to worry as much about transmission from surfaces, according to health experts.
“The virus is going to be dead within a day on any surfaces, and there’s essentially no evidence for transmission from surfaces,” said Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that while it “may be possible” to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface with the virus and then touching the mouth, nose, or possibly the eyes, the “primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person.”
The White House is always kept clean, Walters said. The executive residence is cleaned by its own staff, and the GSA is responsible for maintaining the East and West Wings, which serve as office space for the first lady and the president and their staffers.
GSA said that in addition to a cleaning that will happen between administrations, there’s already daily disinfection in the East and West Wings that follows guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
The GSA also has a $29,000 contract with Didlake, a company in Manassas, Virginia, to provide “disinfectant misting services due to COVID at the White House.” That contract, first reported by TMZ, started on November 3 and is set to continue through November 2, 2021.
GSA said the contract involves “electrostatic spraying of offices and common spaces as part of our COVID-19 response” and that the contractor has been spraying disinfectants from a list of EPA-registered products.
But some health experts are skeptical that disinfectant mists effectively combat the spread of the virus.
“I think that’s hygiene theater,” Allen said, adding that spraying disinfectant into the air could also create a respiratory hazard.
“If they simply clean surfaces and keep the air exchange rates high, that will be enough,” he said.
‘They need to be concerned’
Lurie, the former Biden coronavirus advisor, said she expects that protecting the new staffers from exposure to the virus would be something the Biden team takes very seriously, given its efforts during the campaign to protect him and his staff.
“Of course they need to be concerned, and concern for his safety has been a hallmark of the entire campaign, so one would have every expectation that that will continue for the foreseeable future,” Lurie said.
Another concern is the possibility of virus transmission from White House staffers who don’t change with the administration.
There’s a risk of transmission from people who have the virus but aren’t showing symptoms, Raynor said. But he expects that anyone who’s coughing or feeling sick would either stay home or be sent home, and an effective testing regimen could help detect cases among staffers.
The Biden team should wear masks inside when they’re interacting with their colleagues, health experts said. They might even want to wear them if they’re alone in the White House on Inauguration Day, waiting for the air to clear.
“If they’re in their office by themselves — a private office — they don’t need to wear a mask, with the possible exception of waiting the first day,” Goldman said. “We know the virus doesn’t live very long outside of an infected human.”