Covid cases among Washington power brokers put new focus on White House’s protocols for Biden

If it had taken place at almost any other time, the surface event in Washington might have come and gone. But in the age of a pandemic, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s proximity to the president during the signing, just a day before she announced that she had tested positive for covid-19, has set off alarm bells. .
And in other parts of Washington, a large number of cases among political party goers illustrates the tug-of-war between returning to “normal” life and continuing efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

After the Gridiron Club dinner over the weekend, an annual event where members of the press rub shoulders with top Washington officials, more than a dozen attendees tested positive, including two members of Biden’s cabinet.

Aides who have revealed they have tested positive include: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo; Attorney General Merrick Garland; Vice President Kamala Harris’ director of communications, Jamal Simmons; Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas; Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California; Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine; and the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens.

Simmons was a close contact of the vice president, the White House said in a statement. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as being within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes during a 24-hour period.

The President and Vice President have continued to test negative for COVID-19 and have both received their second booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in recent days.

Testing the Biden bubble

The president, who is 79, is at higher risk of a more severe case of covid-19 due to his age, although the CDC says older adults who are up-to-date on vaccinations and boosters significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization. and death.

Biden’s bubble, the White House maintains, goes beyond CDC guidelines to isolate him from possible infection: test those close to him and implement physical distancing when possible. And yet, as the events of this week unfolded, the limits of the White House bubble were tested, with Covid currently affecting at least four people in the President’s line of succession to varying degrees.

Officials and visitors have not been asked to wear masks or maintain social distance at large White House events since the CDC updated its new metrics to guide Covid-19 restrictions, such as mask wearing, to end of February. Covid cases in Washington have declined since their peak in early January, when the country was facing a wave of cases of the Omicron variant.

The White House says that only people who are in “close contact” with Biden are tested immediately before meeting or attending events with him, and that not everyone who attended Wednesday’s event at the Postal Service was tested. It also says that additional testing protocols for Biden will depend on his doctors.

Pelosi, along with other members of Congress at the White House on Wednesday, tested negative before the signing event.

She and the dinner attendees who tested positive are not considered close contacts of the president.

Harris, who is considered a close contact with someone who tested positive this week, did not need to quarantine because of Simmons’ positive test, the White House said, adding that she would follow CDC guidelines for close contacts.

But on Thursday, while presiding over the confirmation vote for incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the vice president was seen without a mask on the Senate dais. Harris could be seen at times raising his hand from her, as if to ask a senator not to get too close, but there were times when people, masked and unmasked, moved closer to her.

A White House official, responding to questions about why Harris hadn’t worn a mask inside the Senate chamber during the vote, said the vice president had consulted with a White House doctor, was “practicing social distancing.” ” and had “limited and brief interactions”. from his chair.”

The CDC recommends that people who are exposed to Covid and are up to date on their vaccinations get tested at least five days after close contact and wear masks around other people for 10 days after contact. The guidelines do not say that the person can be without a mask with other people if they are practicing social distancing.

Asked earlier if Harris had violated protocol by remaining unmasked inside the chamber, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she had not conducted “further analysis,” noting that the vice president was sitting on a dais. slightly away from the Senate.

He later confirmed that Harris would follow CDC protocols at other events, such as the White House celebrations for Jackson’s confirmation.

Psaki said Wednesday that the administration feels it has the appropriate steps in place to continue its “return to work” policy.

On Friday, the White House will hold an outdoor celebration for Jackson’s confirmation.

The reception has already drawn some parallels to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination announcement in the White House Rose Garden in late September 2020, which ended up being a likely Covid-19 superspread event. and preceded the Covid-related hospitalization of then-President Donald Trump. for less than a week.

The Biden White House has pointed out, importantly, that unlike at the time of Barrett’s reception, Americans now have broad access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“At that time, the vaccines were not available. People were not vaccinated. It certainly puts us in a different space,” Psaki said Thursday, emphasizing that Friday’s event will be outdoors.

This story has been updated with additional reports.

CNN’s Jasmine Wright, MJ Lee, Nikki Carvajal and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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