DES MOINES — In traveling to Iowa to call attention to the burdens COVID-19 brought to religious services and the food supply, Vice President Mike Pence unwittingly called attention to another issue: whether the White House itself is safe from the disease.
So far this week, two White House aides — President Donald Trump’s valet on Thursday, and Pence’s press secretary on Friday — have tested positive for the virus.
On Friday morning, Pence’s departure to Des Moines was delayed an hour as Air Force Two idled on a tarmac near Washington. Though Pence’s press secretary was not on the plane, White House physicians through contact tracing identified six other aides who had been near her who were aboard, and pulled them from the flight. The White House later said the six had tested negative.
Trump, who identified the Pence aide as press secretary Katie Miller, said he was “not worried” about the virus in the White House.
Nonetheless, officials said they were stepping up safety protocols and were considering a mandatory mask policy for those in close contact with Trump and Pence.
The vice president and 10 members of his staff are given rapid coronavirus tests daily, and the president is also tested regularly.
Miller, who is married to Trump adviser Stephen Miller, had been in recent contact with Pence but not with the president. Pence is leader of the White House coronavirus task force and Katie Miller has handled the group’s communications.
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After landing in Des Moines, Pence spoke to a group of faith leaders about the importance of resuming religious services, saying cancellations in the name of slowing the spread of the virus have “been a burden” for congregants.
His visit coincided with the state announcing 12 more deaths from the virus, a total of 243 in less than two months.
Pence spoke with the religious leaders and Republican officials during a brief visit. He also spoke later with agricultural and food company executives.
“It’s been a source of heartache for people across the country,” Pence told about a dozen people at the Church of the Way Presbyterian church in Urbandale.
Pence told the group that continued efforts to hold services online and in other ways “made incalculable difference in our nation seeing our way through these troubled times.”
Iowa is among many states where restrictions on in-person services are starting to ease. GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, who joined both of the state’s Republican senators at the event, has instituted new rules that allow services to resume with restrictions.
At Friday’s event, some religious leaders expressed hesitation at resuming large gatherings, while others said they would begin holding services soon,
“We are pretty much in a position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship. It’s inadvisable at the moment particularly with rising case counts in communities where we are across the state,” said David Kaufman, rabbi of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines.
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The Rev. Terry Amann, of Church of the Way, said his church will resume services May 17 with chairs arranged so families can sit together but avoid the temptation to shake hands or offer hugs. He said hand sanitizer will be available.
A new poll by The University of Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows just 9 percent of Americans think in-person services should be allowed without restrictions, while 42 percent think they should be allowed with restrictions and 48 percent think they shouldn’t be allowed at all.
Pence later met with agriculture and food industry leaders. Iowa tops the nation in egg production and pork processing and is a top grower of corn and soybeans.
Meatpacking is among the state’s biggest employers, and companies have been working to restart operations after closing them because hundreds of their workers became infected.
As Pence touted the Trump administration’s announcement of the reopening of 14 meatpacking plants including two of the worst hit by coronavirus infections in Perry and Waterloo, the union representing workers called for safer work conditions.
“Iowa’s meatpacking workers are not sacrificial lambs. They have been working tirelessly during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure families here and across the country have access to the food they need,” said the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in a statement.
The Associated Press and the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
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