President Donald Trump listens during a phone call Oct. 4, 2020, in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Former CDC head: COVID-19's spread in White House shows 'testing does not replace safety measures'

Many who specialize in infectious disease control say the White House is setting a bad example for the rest of the globe. The World spoke to Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World

In this image provided by the White House, President Donald Trump listens during a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Oct. 4, 2020, in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Tia Dufour/The White House via AP

Much still remains unknown about US President Donald Trump's medical condition — particularly after a series of press conferences in which his doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center gave conflicting information about his status. Trump tweeted Monday afternoon that he planned to leave the hospital at 6:30 p.m. that day. 

Very little about this process has been normal, from the combination of treatments Trump is receiving for COVID-19 all at once, to the way the outbreak is playing out in his inner circle. The list of infected people continues to grow. Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, announced Monday that she, too, has tested positive for the virus, as have two of her staffers. 

Many who specialize in infectious disease control say the White House is setting a bad example for the rest of the globe. The World's host Marco Werman spoke to Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative to prevent epidemics and cardiovascular disease.  

Related: Trump positive: What catching COVID-19 meant for Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro 

Marco Werman: Dr. Frieden, how should an outbreak like this in the White House be handled? What are the best practices for prevention, isolation and quarantining? 

Dr. Tom Frieden: Well, first, you want to make sure that you do everything possible to prevent it from happening. And one of the clear lessons here is that testing does not replace safety measures. Tests can be falsely negative when, even if you're negative in the morning, you can be infectious in the afternoon. So, yes, testing can play a very important role. But it's only a role as part of a comprehensive strategy. And I think there's no doubt that the fact that there was so much testing going on at the White House gave a false sense of security and allowed this to spread more widely.

The second lesson is, once you've got a case, you've got to immediately isolate cases and quarantine contacts. That's how you stop it from spreading very widely. And this has been really an example of what not to do with an outbreak. You haven't quickly isolated cases. You haven't quickly quarantine contacts. And because of that, there's been a fair amount of spread. 

As you follow the headlines in the news from the White House, what concerns you the most about how this is being handled? 

I hope it will be a lesson of what we as a country can do better because right now COVID-19 has the upper hand. Because of that, more than 210,000 Americans have been killed by this virus. And last Thursday, when the president developed his illness, another 40,000 people were diagnosed and probably 200,000 people total got newly infected on that day. Of those people, about a thousand will die. These are really mind-boggling numbers and we need to do a much better job of preventing it from spreading by the three W's — Wear a mask. Watch your distance. Wash your hands — and by doing a really good job not just of testing, but rapid isolation, complete contact-tracing and support of quarantine. Countries all over the world are doing this. But we're not succeeding in the US. 

It was reported that the CDC had offered to help with the White House, but the White House passed. I know the CDC assists other countries' CDCs. They're kind of the mothership. So, what's the impact around the globe when the CDC is ignored domestically? 

What we've seen in countries all over and in states and cities around the US is that governments that are guided by public health — and that fully support public health — do better. They have fewer cases, less death, less economic devastation. And when cases and clusters do occur, they're stopped before they become widespread. 

Related: Social media misinformation is 'growing threat' to coronavirus vaccine efforts, study shows

How concerned are you by what's happening at the White House influencing the behavior of others and trust in public health to do things like quarantine after an exposure? 

Well, start with masks. We're already seeing in communities all over the US — including parts of New York City, where I live — people not wearing masks and citing the White House as an example. Now, the White House has said that it's important to wear masks, but you have to show it by your behavior as well. And then when it comes to rapid isolation, someone who has COVID-19 needs to be isolated for, generally, 10 days and should only potentially risk others for a medically necessary procedure. And someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 needs to quarantine for 14 days so that they can reduce the risk that they would spread it to others. 

Are you expecting the president, after this experience, to be a better communicator of this disease? 

I can only hope that he has a speedy and full recovery and that we as a country will recognize that we're all connected and that disease anywhere is potentially a risk everywhere. And the more we're divided, the more the virus will continue to conquer us. The more we work together and follow proven principles of finding, preventing and stopping the spread of this infection, the more lives we'll save and the sooner we'll get our jobs and the economy back. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.