By Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump told Americans “to get out there” and not fear COVID-19 as he returned to the White House on Monday after a three-night hospital stay to be treated for the virus and removed his white surgical mask to pose for pictures.
Asked how he felt on arrival at the White House, where his staff has been hit by infections and his re-election campaign dogged by the pandemic, Trump said: “Real good,” according to a pool report by a journalist covering his return on behalf of other media.
Trump wore a mask as he left the helicopter that flew him back from a military hospital outside Washington and climbed the stairs of the White House South Portico, where he removed it and posed for pictures, waving, saluting and giving thumbs-up signs.
He then turned to walk into the White House, his mask still in his pocket, TV footage showed.
Trump has played down a disease has killed more than 1 million people worldwide and more than 209,000 in the United States alone – the highest death toll of any country.
The Republican president, running for re-election against Democrat Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, was admitted to the Walter Reed Medical Center on Friday after being diagnosed with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said in a recorded video message. “We’re going back, we’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. … Don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful.”
Shortly after his return, a video with thunderous orchestral music posted to his Twitter handle showed him arriving at the White House and saluting from the South Portico as Marine One flew off. The video was quickly viewed nearly a million times.
Trump has repeatedly flouted social-distancing guidelines meant to curb the virus’ spread. He also mocked Biden at last Tuesday’s presidential debate for wearing a mask at events, even when he is far from others.
While it was unclear if Biden had seen Trump’s latest video, the Democrat, who leads in national opinion polls, stressed the seriousness of the disease and emphasized the importance of wearing masks.
“I would hope the president – having gone through what he went through and I’m glad he seems to be coming along pretty well – would communicate the right lesson to the American people. Masks matter,” Biden told an NBC News town hall in Miami.
Trump, 74, has not had a fever in more than 72 hours and his oxygen levels are normal, his medical team told reporters at the hospital where he was treated. The doctors declined, however, to discuss any toll the disease could have on the president’s lungs or disclose when Trump last tested negative for the coronavirus.
The team added that the president had received supplemental oxygen twice in recent days.
“He may not entirely be out of the woods yet,” Dr. Sean. P. Conley, the White House physician, said. “If we can get through to Monday with him remaining the same or improving, better yet, then we will all take that final, deep sigh of relief.”
But Conley said the medical team believed Trump was ready to leave the hospital, stressing he would have world-class medical care around the clock at the White House.
Conley said doctors were in “uncharted territory” because Trump had received certain therapies so early in the course of the illness.
The severity of Trump’s illness has been the subject of intense speculation, with some medical experts noting that, as an overweight, elderly man, he was in a category more likely to develop severe complications or die from the disease.
Doctors also have been treating him with a steroid, dexmethasone, that is normally used only in the most severe cases.
Trump was reluctant to go to the hospital last week and was eager to get out, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters earlier on Monday, although Trump’s medical team said he had not placed any pressure on the doctors treating him.
Trump is still undergoing a five-day course of an intravenous antiviral drug, remdesivir, and will have to isolate for a period of time.
The coronavirus outbreak around Trump widened on Monday when White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she had tested positive for the virus. McEnany held a briefing for reporters on Thursday in which she did not wear a face mask.
Chad Gilmartin and Karoline Leavitt, who work in the White House’s press office, also have tested positive, a source confirmed to Reuters.
TRAILING IN POLLS
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed Trump trailing Biden, 77, nationally by 10 percentage points. About 65% of Americans said Trump would not have been infected had he taken the virus more seriously.
Biden, who has tested negative for the disease several times since last Tuesday’s presidential debate, said he was willing to participate in the next one on Oct. 15 in Miami if health experts deemed it safe.
Trump intends to take part in the debate, his campaign said.
A return to the White House might help Trump project a sense of normalcy. Before falling ill, he tried to pivot the campaign toward the U.S. economic recovery and the upcoming confirmation hearings for his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
But the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the White House as well as in Congress – three Republican senators have tested positive for the virus in the past week – threatens to draw further attention to Trump’s pandemic response.
Major U.S. stock markets closed higher on Monday before Trump’s departure from the hospital and amid signs of progress with a new fiscal stimulus bill in Congress. Wall Street’s main indexes slumped on Friday after Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Andrea Shalal, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, and Tim Ahmann; Writing by Paul Simao and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)