At least one elected official in Maine who attended Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign event in Hermon last week was alerted that he may have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Andre Cushing, a Penobscot County commissioner and former state senator from Hampden, said he was contacted last Tuesday – the day after the event – and took a test later that day. He found out Wednesday he was negative.
News didn’t break until late Saturday that several staff members of the vice president had tested positive, including a personal aide and Pence’s chief of staff.
Cushing said he was part of the local advance team in Maine that helped the campaign with logistics for the event last Monday at Dysart’s, a truck stop in Hermon. He was backstage before the event and then sat in the outdoor VIP section during Pence’s remarks, along with several other high-profile Republicans, including former Gov. Paul LePage, former Congressman Bruce Poliquin and state Rep. Dale Crafts, who is running against U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
“I was told that I was in close contact with someone who tested positive and was advised to get tested,” Cushing said. “They were only able to share so much information with me. I think they were being extra cautious.”
Cushing said the contact tracer he spoke with was set up through the White House. He was not told the identity of the positive case he was in contact with, which is standard protocol in contact tracing. He didn’t provide any names of people who also were backstage but said he didn’t know some of them.
A White House official who wasn’t authorized to release the information and spoke on condition of anonymity told the Press Herald late Monday that the positive case whom Cushing had contact with was Marty Obst, a top outside political adviser who traveled with Pence to Maine. The official said contact tracing revealed that Obst had contact with a limited number of people backstage and never went into the crowd.
Brent Littlefield, an adviser to LePage who also attended the event, said the former governor was never backstage with Pence or anyone from his team and wasn’t contacted.
Poliquin, reached by phone on Monday, also said he had not been contacted by the White House or tested. Crafts’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry from a reporter, nor did several Republican Party communications staff members.
Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as of noon Monday, the agency “had not received any communication from the White House or the campaign about potential exposure during Vice President Pence’s visit to Maine last week.”
“Maine CDC would potentially become involved in contact tracing if, as with any large gathering, evidence indicates that transmission affecting Maine residents occurred at the event,” he said in an email. “Maine CDC continues to encourage people not to attend large gatherings and to wear face coverings and maintain physical distancing whenever possible.”
Cushing said he wore a mask backstage, but not everyone did. During Pence’s remarks, photos and videos show that masks were not widespread among attendees, nor was physical distancing.
The same was true on Sunday, when President Trump made an impromptu trip to Treworgy Family Orchard in Levant, near Bangor. Hours before his arrival, the Maine CDC reported 61 new cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day total since May. Cases have been steadily increasing in Maine, which has been among the states with the lowest rates of infection since the pandemic began.
Both Pence’s event and Trump’s visit violated executive orders from Gov. Janet Mills that limit large-scale gatherings and require masks in environments where physical distancing is challenging.
Mills criticized both visits.
“I’m saddened, because Vice President Pence is the head of the Coronavirus Task Force, we’re on the phone together every week,” Mills said last week.
On Sunday, the Democratic governor appeared with her attorney general, Aaron Frey, and House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon to condemn Trump’s visit to Maine.
The timeline of how COVID-19 spread through the vice president’s inner circle is still unclear. Pence tested negative on both Sunday and Monday, the New York Times reported.
The Times also reported that two people briefed on the matter said White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had sought to keep news of the outbreak from becoming public. Meadows said Sunday on CNN that the U.S. was “not going to control the virus.” Instead, he said the focus should be continuing to develop vaccines and therapeutics to treat COVID-19 patients. The statement came on a day when new cases reached a record in the United States.
The vice president’s office has confirmed that his chief of staff, Marc Short, has tested positive but has not confirmed the identity of other staff members. National media outlets, however, relying on unnamed sources, have Obst, a top outside political adviser to Pence, and Zach Bauer, Pence’s personal aide or “body man,” as two others.
It’s unclear who traveled to Maine with the vice president, although Bauer travels everywhere with Pence. According to CNN, Bauer has not been in the office since Tuesday, when he went home to quarantine after coming into contact with Obst. Bauer then tested positive Saturday.
Several other Pence staff members are being quarantined, according to the White House.
Pence continued to campaign all last week, in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, all major battleground states.
Large-scale events hosted by the president and vice president go against all public health recommendations. There is now some suggestion that the president’s rallies have left a trail of outbreaks.
An analysis by USA Today that was published Monday found that COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five rallies in the following counties: Blue Earth, Minnesota; Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Marathon, Wisconsin; Dauphin, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami, Minnesota.
Together, those counties saw 1,500 more new cases in the two weeks following Trump’s rallies than the two weeks before – 9,647 cases, up from 8,069, USA Today reported. There’s no way to determine definitively if cases originated at Trump’s rallies, but even in states where cases were already rising, the spikes in at least four counties that hosted Trump rallies surpassed their state’s overall growth rates.
Cushing, the Penobscot County commissioner and former state senator, said he understands the anxiety people have. He mentioned the August wedding in Millinocket as an example of how quickly the virus can spread.
“I’ll be candid, I resisted a little at the beginning,” he said, referring to wearing masks and taking other precautions.
After he learned of his possible exposure, Cushing said he limited contact with his wife and elderly mother-in-law, who lives with him.
Cushing said he had planned to get another test on Sunday, knowing that his initial test was only one day after his possible exposure and if he had caught the virus, it may not have been detectable.
However, he said he postponed the test after learning that Trump was coming to Levant so he could attend the rally and help with parking.