Debate-Site Covid Cases Sow Doubt on Safety of Indoor Events

A coronavirus outbreak among attendees at last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland — and 11 near-misses from people denied entry because of positive test results — is stoking questions about the safety of convening another in-person session.

The health risks are central any more go-rounds between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, with the commission overseeing the forums canceling the Oct. 15 event after the Trump campaign balked at a newly proposed virtual format.

Trump and at least five aides and advisers involved in preparing him for the Cleveland debate have been diagnosed with Covid-19, along with 11 construction workers and members of the media who were barred from the site after testing positive.

The final debate, scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, will go on, the Commission on Presidential Debates said in a statement, “in accordance with all required testing, masking, social distancing and other protocols.”

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Trump, who was hospitalized for treatment of Covid last weekend, says he feels better and plans to hold an outdoor rally at the White House on Saturday with hundreds of supporters who he will address from a balcony.

In-person debates bring into close contact campaign teams, guests and candidates from across the country. Medical experts cite the risk of aerosolized droplets from two loud-talking, impassioned candidates as well as the scores of workers involved in setting up a debate, from project managers and logistics experts to sound and lighting crews.

“There is no way to guarantee there would be no risk of transmission of infection,” said George Abraham, chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine Infectious Disease Board.

The Commission on Presidential Debates pointed out the risk to private citizens and work crews in pushing for a virtual town hall event.

“We want to make sure that everyone is safe, and we’re going to go the hard way, not take a chance, and that’s why we decided if we were going to have this, we had to do it virtually to make sure that everyone was safe,” Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said on Fox News’s “The Story.”

Fahrenkopf said a crew of 65 is required to build and assemble the sets. “And in a town hall meeting, we have private citizens who are going to be there,” he said.

Guests at the Cleveland debate were screened before entry, but testing is not foolproof, leaving open the possibility that audience members, staff and family of the candidates could be harboring the virus undetected. That’s why other precautions -- including mask wearing -- have been employed. But in Cleveland, a number of audience members on Trump’s side of the room including Melania Trump, the first lady who also tested positive days later, rebuffed a request to don face coverings.

She and four other people connected to Trump who were at the debate have since tested positive. Several of them also attended an event in the Rose Garden days earlier, which Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious-disease expert, has called a “super-spreader event” for the novel coronavirus.

Some health experts say layered protections -- including aggressive testing of candidates and guests, social distancing and mask wearing -- can keep debates safe.

At the vice presidential debate in Utah on Wednesday, plexiglass partitions were erected between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, and between them and the moderator, Susan Page. The two candidates were seated 12 feet apart. However, the protection afforded by small barriers has been disputed, and engineers say a more important consideration is air flow.

“Shields are good if it is close to your face and you directly cough into it. The larger droplets will impact and collect on the shield,” said Pratim Biswas, an engineering professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Without an appropriate air flow designed around it, “the smaller droplets will flow past the surface.”

Ohio House Democratic Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, who was in the hall for the Cleveland debate, said she began self-isolating and got tested after Trump’s diagnosis.

“I am frustrated today as I worry now about my own health and the health of so many others who were present that evening like journalists, support staff, Cleveland Clinic professionals and many others who could have potentially been exposed,” Sykes said in a statement.

Sykes, who has a master’s degree in public health, said Friday she believes there should be no more in-person debates this year if guidelines on social distancing and mask wearing aren’t going to be followed.

The Cleveland Clinic, which was co-host of the debate along with Case Western Reserve University, stressed in an emailed statement that the 11 journalists and workers who tested positive “did not receive credentials or tickets to enter the debate hall until they had a negative test, and all were advised to isolate while they awaited their test results.”

On Thursday, the Trump campaign repeatedly insisted on an in-person session, at one point suggesting that if next week’s debate were pushed back, another should be scheduled for Oct. 29. That approach was rejected by the Biden campaign, and the former vice president is now scheduled to participate in a town hall with ABC News.

“From a medical standpoint, if there is a way of doing debate prep remotely by Zoom or other means, of course it will be safer than everyone getting in one room,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

— With assistance by Michelle Fay Cortez, Keith Laing, and Emma Court

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