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After maskless schmoozing, DC elite hit with COVID outbreak

People in business attire chat in front of the presidential seal.
Enlarge / US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

A growing number of high-ranking officials, lawmakers, aides, and journalists have tested positive for COVID-19 this week amid an outbreak of the ultratransmissible omicron variant among the elite of Washington, DC.

In the past three days, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.), and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) reported positive COVID-19 tests. Two Cabinet members—Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Attorney General Merrick Garland—also reported positive tests, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ communications director, Jamal Simmons, and, President Joe Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens. Several staff members for the White House and National Security Council have also tested positive, The Washington Post reports.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s spokesperson announced that she, too, had been infected. “After testing negative this week, Speaker Pelosi received a positive test result for COVID-19 and is currently asymptomatic. The Speaker is fully vaccinated and boosted and is thankful for the robust protection the vaccine has provided, ” Spokesperson Drew Hammill tweeted.

In addition, Politico reports that scores of DC-based political reporters have also tested positive this week or reported illnesses. Among them is PBS NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins. Like many who have tested positive this week, Desjardins attended the annual Gridiron Club dinner last Saturday. The white-tie-and-gowns event had about 630 guests, the Post noted, and involved a mostly maskless group of A-list lawmakers, government officials, journalists, and other inside-beltway elite. While guests were required to be vaccinated, they were not required to test negative prior to the event.

Guest list

After gathering for a predinner cocktail reception, guests of the event sat at narrow tables, ate, and watched satirical skits. To conclude the evening, guests joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne” together. Now-positive Reps. Schiff and Castro, Attorney General Garland, and Harris’ aid, Simmons, were in attendance. Commerce Secretary Raimondo was a featured speaker at the event. The Post noted that the guest list also included:

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.); Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and special presidential envoy John F. Kerry; Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell; Govs. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) and Chris Sununu (R-N.H.); and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D)… former NFL great Emmitt Smith; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; CBS host Jane Pauley and her spouse, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau; Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova; Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff; ABC chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl, and Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan and editor Sally Buzbee.

The event also included top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci and Director Rochelle Walensky of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fauci told the Post that he wore a mask during the reception but took it off to eat.

President Biden did not attend the event in person. Instead, he appeared virtually.

Tom DeFrank, president of the Gridiron Club, told the Post that as of Wednesday afternoon, the group knew of 14 guests who had tested positive, about seven of which were clustered at three tables. He added that the group is notifying guests who were seated nearby.

Evolving situation

Still, as Politico notes, other political events have been linked to infections in recent days, such as a going-away party for National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.

The cases come as many in DC and the rest of the country are trying to return to some level of normalcy while cases are relatively low. In a comment to the Post, Fauci said that “We are in a situation where, as a population, we need to make a decision that is based on data as well as our own individual willingness to take whatever level of risk happens to be present that you’re making the decision about.” But, he added, that people need to also be prepared to resume precautions if or when the situation changes.

Though national tallies of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still declining, more than two dozen states and the District of Columbia are seeing rises in cases. Northeastern states are seeing some of the biggest upticks.

The increases and outbreaks coincide with the rise of omicron subvariant BA.2, which is now accounting for an estimated 72 percent of US cases. The subvariant is yet more transmissible than the initial version of omicron, BA.1, though it does not appear to cause more severe disease. BA.2 has caused severe spikes in cases in Europe and elsewhere recently. Experts have suggested that the US may also see a nationwide increase in cases from the subvariant, but it’s unclear how large any such bump may be.

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