Covid cases among DC power brokers highlight White House protocols for Biden

If it had taken place almost any other time, the surface event in Washington could have come and gone. But in the age of a pandemic, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s closeness to the president at the signing – just a day before she announced she had tested positive for Covid-19 – triggered the alarm.
And elsewhere in Washington, a slew of cases among political supporters illustrate the back-and-forth between returning to “normal” life and continuing efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

On Friday, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told CNN’s John Berman that it was “possible” that Biden would eventually contract Covid-19, but she added that the White House is continuing to take precautions.

“The president is certainly living his life, as you say all Americans across the country — while taking precautions, while making sure we follow CDC guidelines,” she said.

While the number of Covid cases in Washington and across the country remains low, a surge of cases among high-level lawmakers and notable figures in the nation’s capital has led to increased scrutiny of the administration’s Covid protocols.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in particular, is in the spotlight for her apparent disregard for the advice of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those who have been exposed to Covid-19. Its communications director, Jamal Simmons, tested positive after attending the annual Gridiron Club dinner, one of at least 37 people who have tested positive following the event where members of the press rub shoulders with d prominent Washington officials.

Simmons was a close contact for the vice president, the White House said in a statement. Close contact is defined by the CDC as being within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. Although Harris did not need to self-quarantine due to Simmons’ positive test, the White House said it would follow CDC guidelines for close contacts.

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

The CDC recommends that people exposed to Covid and up to date on vaccinations be tested at least five days after close contact and wear masks around other people for 10 days after contact. The guidelines do not say a person can be mask-free around others if they are practicing social distancing.

A White House official, responding to questions about why Harris did not wear a mask inside the Senate chamber during the vote, said the vice president consulted a House doctor Blanche, “practiced social distancing” and had “limited and brief interactions.” from his chair.”

Asked earlier if Harris broke protocol by remaining unmasked inside the chamber, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she did not do ‘further analysis’ and noted that the Vice President was seated on a dais slightly off the Senate floor.

She later said Harris would follow CDC protocols at other events, such as the White House celebration for Jackson’s confirmation. The president and vice president continued to test negative for Covid-19 and 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 increased risk of contracting a more serious case of Covid-19 due to his age, although the CDC says older people who are up to date on vaccines and boosters significantly reduce their risk of hospitalization and death.

Biden’s bubble, the White House argues, goes beyond CDC guidelines to isolate him from potential infection — testing people close to him and implementing physical distancing when possible. And yet, as this week’s events unfolded, the limits of the White House bubble were tested – with Covid currently affecting at least four people in the president’s estate to varying degrees.

Officials and visitors have not been required to wear masks or socially distance at major White House events since the CDC updated its new measures to guide Covid-19 restrictions such as the wearing a mask at the end of February. Covid cases in Washington have declined since their peak in early January, when the country was dealing with a surge of cases of Omicron variants.

The White House says only people who are in “close contact” with Biden are tested immediately before meeting him or attending events with him, and that anyone who attended Wednesday’s event on the service postal have not been tested. He also says 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 ahead of the signing event.

She and the dinner attendees who tested positive are not considered close contacts of the president. These dinner attendees include Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo; Attorney General Merrick Garland; Simons; first lady Jill Biden’s press secretary, Michael LaRosa; 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.

Even with the string of positive tests and apparent close calls for the president, the White House is moving forward with normal events — on Friday, Biden will host an outdoor celebration for Jackson’s confirmation.

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

The Biden White House noted, crucially, that unlike the time of Barrett’s reception, Americans now have broad access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“At that time, vaccines were not available. People were not vaccinated. It definitely puts us in a different space,” Psaki said Thursday, noting that Friday’s event will take place outdoors.

This story has been updated with additional reports.

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