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White-tie “superspreading event” sounds alarm for Washington

Biden didn’t attend the dinner but there is growing concern that he may be exposed to more risks of contracting the virus

Washington, U.S. | Xinhua | A high-profile dinner held in downtown Washington, D.C. earlier this month appeared to be a “super spreader” event, with at least dozens of attendees reportedly testing positive for COVID-19 days after the grand social occasion.

The number of attendees who have reported a positive test result in the past few days after attending the elite Gridiron Club and Foundation dinner on April 2 has reportedly risen to 67, more than 10 percent of the guests at the Renaissance Hotel, which hosted 630 U.S. government officials, members of Congress, diplomats, and journalists that night.

Among those infected were three members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s cabinet — Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — and several well-known lawmakers, including Congressmen Adam Schiff from California and Joaquin Castro from Texas.

“All guests at the Gridiron Club dinner were required to show proof of vaccination,” Gridiron President Tom DeFrank said in a statement. “We understand that some of our guests have reported positive tests since the dinner. We wish them a speedy recovery.”

Founded in 1885, the Gridiron Club and Foundation is the oldest and one of the most prestigious journalistic organizations in Washington, D.C., whose annual event — held in various forms for more than a century — was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While contact-tracing investigations have yet to confirm that these infections occurred at the dinner itself, the growing number of cases among attendees suggests the Gridiron was a superspreader event,” Leana Wen, professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, wrote in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post.

Biden didn’t attend the dinner but there is growing concern that he may be exposed to more risks of contracting the virus. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, a day after she appeared unmasked at an indoor White House event and stood next to Biden.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has insisted Biden was not considered a close contact of Pelosi’s as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because they spent less than 15 minutes in close proximity to each other. The 79-year-old veteran Democrat who has never been diagnosed with COVID-19 tested negative on Friday as part of his regular cadence.

“We have incredibly stringent protocols here at the White House that we keep in place to keep the president safe, to keep everybody safe,” Psaki told reporters. “Every member of the staff is on a regular testing protocol.”

“If you’re going to see him in person, whether you’re traveling with him or you’re meeting in the Oval Office, you will be tested. We try to do socially distanced meetings when necessary,” Psaki said.

Despite precautions to keep Biden safe from the virus, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield acknowledged that “it is certainly possible that he will test positive for COVID” amid an uptick in positive cases surrounding him, while stressing that Biden “is vaccinated, he is boosted and protected from the most severe strains of the virus.”

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, announced in early October 2020 that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was briefly hospitalized before returning to the White House for further treatment. The Republican’s infection with the disease while still in office was widely seen as an epitome of the nation’s botched response to the pandemic, which has led to more than 80 million cases and 985,000 deaths so far — both the highest numbers in the world.

The White House recently reiterated the pandemic was not over though restrictions at various levels are being lifted across the United States. Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. infectious disease expert, has said that he expects the highly contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 — now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the nation — to fuel an increase in cases.

Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at the GWU Medical Center, tweeted that the coronavirus outbreak at the Gridiron Club dinner “illustrates how massively transmissible BA.2 is, and how much of a mistake it was to summarily drop all mitigation while we’re still in the pandemic phase of this virus.”

“It is not safe now to gather in large numbers in confined spaces without masks,” Reiner said. “It’s irresponsible to require people to figure this out on their own.”

Most Americans say the way they conduct their lives is still affected to some extent by the pandemic, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

About six in ten adults, the survey showed, believe that people should continue to wear masks in some public places to minimize the spread and avoid another surge in cases, while four in ten think that people should stop wearing masks in most public places so things can go back to normal.

There are significant divides not only by partisanship, and vaccination status, but also by race, ethnicity, and income, it also found.

Julia Raifman, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at Boston University School of Public Health, called the Gridiron outbreak a good example of the shortcomings of “Urgency of Normal.”

“The dinner could have had testing requirements and/or held outdoors,” Raifman suggested in a tweet. “But when we make haste and don’t face that the virus isn’t normal, we end up with far more infections and harms.”



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