WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump briefly left the military hospital where he is being treated for COVID-19 in a motorcade on Sunday (Oct 4) to wave to supporters gathered outside, sparking criticism from the medical community that he was putting others at risk.
Trump was captured on video waving from the back seat of a black SUV Sunday evening, wearing a mask, as crowds cheered and waved American flags and pro-Trump banners outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland.
Two people could be seen in the vehicle's front seats.
Patients who test positive for COVID-19 are generally required to quarantine for 14 days, the typical incubation period for the coronavirus to avoid infecting others. The disease has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
Trump tested positive on Thursday and did not disclose his infection until the early hours of Friday morning.
Shortly before the brief ride, Trump posted a video on Twitter saying he would "pay a little surprise to the some of the great patriots we have out on the street".
Trump also said in the video that he "learned a lot about COVID" by "really going to school," as he has battled the virus in hospital.
"This is the real school. This isn't the 'let's read the books school,' and I get it, and I understand it, and it's a very interesting thing," he added.
READ: Doctors monitoring Trump's lungs, giving steroid to fight COVID-19
"APPROPRIATE PRECAUTIONS TAKEN"
White House spokesman Judd Deere described the drive as a "short, last-minute motorcade ride to wave to his supporters" and said Trump quickly returned to his hospital suite.
Deere said "appropriate precautions were taken" before the ride to protect the President and those supporting him. "The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do," he said.
Criticism of the ride from the medical community was swift, including from an attending physician at Walter Reed.
Experts complained that the outing broke his own government's public health guidelines requiring patients to isolate while they are in treatment and still shedding virus - and endangered his Secret Service protection.
"Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential 'drive-by' just now has to be quarantined for 14 days," James Phillips, who is also an assistant professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University's medical school said on Twitter.
"They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity."
Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and regular TV pundit, described the appearance as "shameful."
"Making his Secret Service agents drive with a COVID-19 patient, with windows up no less, put them needlessly at risk for infection. And for what? A PR stunt," he tweeted.
READ: Commentary - Trump's positive coronavirus test will worsen divides in America
The episode came hours after a briefing by Trump's medical team, who said he had "continued to improve" and could be returned to the White House, which has all the necessary equipment and expertise to continue his treatment, as early as Monday.
While ordinary members of the public would only be sent home after recovering, Trump can take full advantage of the extensive White House medical facilities, which can match those in a hospital in many areas of treatment.
"The president has continued to improve," said his White House physician, Sean Conley. "As with any illness, there are frequent ups and downs over the course."
READ: Doctors say Trump case of COVID-19 likely severe
The president was flown to Walter Reed with a high fever on Friday after a "rapid progression" of his illness, with his oxygen levels dropping worryingly low, Conley said.
A timeline provided by his advisors and doctors suggested he met more than 30 donors on Thursday in Bedminster, New Jersey even after learning that Hope Hicks had COVID-19 - and just hours before he announced his own positive test.
There were more than 200 people at the fundraiser and a contact-tracing operation underway in New Jersey is looking at potentially thousands of people who may have been exposed.
As well as Trump and Hicks, numerous White House insiders and at least three Republican senators have contracted COVID-19, along with First Lady Melania Trump, who has not experienced severe symptoms.
Health experts have complained that the messaging from the administration - and particularly Trump's medical team - has caused widespread confusion.
Conley admitted Sunday that in a briefing a day earlier he had kept from the public the fact that the president had been given extra oxygen, in a bid to reflect an "upbeat attitude".
Adding to the confusion, Conley gave a rosy account of Trump's progress Saturday only for White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to tell reporters immediately that Trump's condition had been "very concerning" and that he was "still not on a clear path to a full recovery."
And while the medical updates have come regularly, questions remain over the drugs Trump has been given and their implications, how bad his fever became, when he last tested negative and whether there is any lung damage.
Asked what tests had revealed about the condition of Trump's lungs, Conley replied: "There's some expected findings, but nothing of any major clinical concern."
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