Health policy specialists have questioned a claim by White House officials that government rules on essential workers allow Vice-President Mike Pence to continue to campaign and not quarantine himself after being exposed to coronavirus.
Campaigning is not an official duty that might fall under the guidelines meant to ensure police, first responders and key transport and food workers can still perform jobs that cannot be done remotely, the experts said.
An aide for Mr Pence said on Sunday that the vice-president will continue to work and travel, including for campaigning, after his chief of staff and some other close contacts tested positive.
He tested negative on Sunday and decided to keep travelling after consulting White House medical personnel, his aides said.
Mr Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, was among those who tested positive on Saturday.
US President Donald Trump said early on Sunday that Mr Short is quarantining.
That usually means isolating for 14 days after exposure, in case an infection is developing, to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Mr Pence is holding a rally in North Carolina on Sunday, another one in Minnesota on Monday and three events in North Carolina and South Carolina on Tuesday.
On Sunday, National Security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Mr Pence “is following all the rules” from government health officials.
He called Mr Pence “an essential worker” and said “essential workers going out and campaigning and voting are about as essential as things we can do as Americans”.
Guidelines on essential workers from the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention are aimed at the likes of police, first responders and key transport and food workers.
The Department of Homeland Security spells out 16 categories of critical infrastructure workers, including those at military bases, nuclear power sites, courthouses and public works facilities like dams and water plants.
Dr Joshua Sharfstein, vice-dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins University and a former Maryland state health department chief, said: “I don’t see campaigning on the list.
“Anything that does not have to be done in person and anything not related to his job as vice-president would not be considered essential.”
He should quarantine in order to protect other peopleDr Joshua Sharfstein
Dr Thomas Tsai, a health policy specialist at Harvard University, agreed.
Helping to maintain the function of the executive branch of government could be considered critical work but “we’ve always historically separated campaigning from official duties”, he said.
Mr Pence also serves as president of the Senate, a largely ceremonial role outlined in the constitution but one that stands to come into focus on Monday.
The Senate is expected to vote on Monday evening to confirm Mr Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Mr Pence’s vote is unlikely to be needed to break a tie but his presence was expected for the vote.
If his official work as vice-president is considered essential, the CDC guidelines say he should be closely monitored for Covid-19 symptoms, stay at least two metres from others and wear a mask “at all times while in the workplace”.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University school of law, said Pence’s intention to continue campaigning flouts the spirit of the CDC guidelines.
Mr Sharfstein said Mr Pence “could be putting people at risk” because he is at high risk of becoming infected.
“He should quarantine in order to protect other people,” he said.