Politics

Washington offers a key test case of Biden’s push to live alongside COVID-19

America is getting a sneak peek at what “living with COVID” means — live and direct from the White House.

Infections within President Biden‘s circle are becoming a daily occurrence. But the White House is forging ahead with business as usual, leaning heavily on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that eased mask-wearing and set a limited definition of who might be a “close contact” of Mr. Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris at official events.

Lawmakers and Supreme Court justices packed onto the White House South Lawn on Friday to hail newly confirmed Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson — days after an indoor dinner sparked a flurry of infections in Washington, and over a year since a similar event in the Trump administration was derided as a “superspreader.”

It’s a real-time gamble for Mr. Biden, who staked his early presidency on the idea he could tackle the pandemic. 

After a tumultuous first year marked by surges and new variants, Mr. Biden is treating the virus as a problem that can be managed with vaccines and other tools instead of allowing it to upend daily life.

White House aides and lawmakers haven’t seen bad outcomes from the virus so far. They’ve reported mild symptoms, and the biggest disruption has been to their work schedule since they must self-isolate for at least five days.

“We expected there to be ups and downs and increases,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as high-profile cases in Washington mounted. “The most important message we’re sending to the public is that we have steps in place that we can take to continue to address it. And even as we’re continuing to fight COVID, we can, for the most part, return to our normal routines.”

The pivot back to normal remains risky. While U.S. cases are at the lowest level since last summer — about 30,000 a day — infections are increasing in places like New York City and Washington as the fast-moving BA.2 variant takes over.

The supply of groundbreaking treatments remains limited, and there is no vaccine yet for children under 5. And while vaccines and boosters appear to stave off disease, the risk of infection remains high and some older adults and people with existing health issues have suffered bad outcomes despite getting the shots.

Mr. Biden, who is 79, tested negative for the virus Friday amid concerns he might have been exposed during White House events with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who confirmed a positive test on Thursday.

The administration said Mr. Biden wasn’t a close contact as defined by CDC guidelines, which say a contact must be within 6 feet from an infected person for a cumulative 15 minutes in a 24-hour period.

“I think there is and ought to be real worry about the president — he is at high risk for trouble but wants to convey strength,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, adding that Mr. Biden is rather social.

“But yes, I think the new normal has come to D.C.,” he said. “No canceling events and much less masking.”

Beyond the president, brushes with the virus pose risks for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Federal data show persons over age 50 have accounted for over 90% of deaths from the coronavirus. The average age in the Senate is 64, and four senators were born in the 1930s.

The chamber’s latest brush with the virus made headlines late Thursday.

Sens. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, and Raphael Warnock, Georgia Democrat, reported positive tests hours after senators packed into the chamber for the vote to confirm Judge Jackson.

Ms. Collins, 69, was wearing a mask during the roll call. She later reported mild symptoms and said she would isolate in line with CDC guidelines.

Mr. Warnock, who like most senators did not wear a mask during the vote, also planned to isolate and lauded the vaccines.

“If you haven’t gotten your shot yet, I encourage you to do so,” the 52-year-old senator tweeted.

The White House, meanwhile, insists it is acting prudently.

Friday’s Rose Garden event featured many dignitaries but took advantage of the spring weather on the lawn, a White House setting that poses less of a risk for transmission than an indoor one like the East Room.

“We did the historic event today outside,” Ms. Psaki said, noting the area served the dual purpose of accommodating a larger crowd and being a safe environment. She said there were no indoor receptions outside the view of cameras.

Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, said the White House is “modeling how to ‘live with COVID-19’” as the country enters a new phase of the pandemic.

“The White House‘s approach is to assess the risk and act accordingly. That is while cases are low, masks and distancing become less important, but both can be dialed back up if we hit a surge,” he said. “Having said that, the White House is taking a significant risk with the president’s health.”

Mr. Gostin said Mr. Biden got an additional booster but “he is visibly frail and he would be expected to take more precautions than the general population.”

“There is a very difficult balance between being a head of state with enormous responsibilities and keeping the president safe,” he said. “I should add that Congress is also abandoning COVID protections, and there are many older members who are at significant risk of COVID complications, including serious illness and long COVID.”

Ms. Psaki acknowledged that Mr. Biden could test positive at some point, but said the president is up to date on his COVID-19 vaccination.

“His doctors are comfortable that he can continue to carry out his duties,” Ms. Psaki said Friday.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain highlighted the vaccines’ impact on severe disease, saying cases might be rising but COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions “remain at all-time lows.”

“Why?” he tweeted. “The success of our vaccination and booster programs.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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