WASHINGTON — “I believe we are at an inflection point,” White House pandemic response team coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said at his first briefing, his remark inauspiciously punctuated by a reporter’s cough. COVID-19 is still here, but many Americans appear to be moving on, even as the Omicron BA.2 variant continues to proliferate.
Passengers are maskless on planes, children are unmasked in schools. Washington, meanwhile, is preparing for its first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in two years, plus a constellation of other parties in the days to come. Saturday’s gala itself will be hosted by comedian Trevor Noah and attended by President Biden.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was slated to attend the WHCA dinner but said on Tuesday that he would not do so. CNN reported he made the decision after “an individual assessment of his own risk.” He may also have wanted to avoid the kind of scrutiny he faced after attending the Gridiron Gala, after which scores of attendees tested positive for COVID-19. Dr. Jerome Adams, the former surgeon general, called the Gridiron “a public health disaster.”
The Washington Post canceled its WHCA party, but nearly 20 similar events are planned around the gala, according to a tally by Axios, billed as celebrations of journalism. For many, it will serve as an opportunity for dressing up and partying with actual flesh-and-blood human beings, perhaps for the first time in two years. (The gala itself requires that attendees be vaccinated and test negative for COVID.)
Nor is the WHCA the only party in town, after two years in which the District of Columbia was a model of caution with its pandemic restrictions — a challenging reality for a city that is fueled by networking and social events. Those are slowly returning, as are the tourists critical to the local economy.
The American Hospital Association held its annual meeting in the District of Columbia just days ago, with minimal health checks required for attendees. “When even the health wonks are gathering in person, it’s a sign that the new, more casual pandemic mood may be here to stay,” Politico noted.
Yet the optimistic new restlessness can also be deceptive: Hundreds across the United States are dying from COVID-19 daily, and thousands are reporting new infections. “The U.S. public is done with the pandemic, even though the virus is not done with us," epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told ABC News on Sunday.
Yet with some 95% of the American population estimated to have some level of immunity — either from vaccination, an infection from an earlier variant or some combination of both — there seems to be a growing sense of exhaustion combined with inevitability, especially as treatments become increasingly available.
For months, the Biden administration has argued that hospitalizations are a better measure of the pandemic’s severity than new infections, since a breakthrough infection is unlikely to make a vaccinated person very sick. Still, as Washington returns to its pre-pandemic ways, high-profile infections are bound to attract attention and fascination.
Absent from the WHCA festivities this weekend will be Vice President Kamala Harris, whose office announced on Tuesday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus. “She has exhibited no symptoms, will isolate and continue to work from the Vice President’s residence,” Harris press secretary Kirsten Allen said in a statement.
On the same day that he bowed out of the WHCA event, Fauci told "PBS Newshour" that the United States was “out of the pandemic phase.” People are now free to decide whether to attend a party, eat at a restaurant, pack into a sports stadium. The public health guardrails around those and many other activities have been demolished, and we are all left to make our own assessments, as Fauci did.
The calculus of risk is necessarily informed by the availability of care. Public health officials have long noted the disparities in care between the wealthy and indigent, between white and nonwhite Americans, who have suffered the brunt of the pandemic’s depredations. The rush to reopen and unmask amounts to a “public health apartheid,” Gregg Gonsalves of Yale argued recently in the Nation.
Having long touted equity as its goal, the Biden administration is now trying to make sure that treatments like Paxlovid — which Jha described as “very, very effective at preventing severe disease” — are available in communities with scant health care infrastructure.
Jha predicted that within several weeks, there would be 40,000 sites across the country for coronavirus patients to access Paxlovid. “Paxlovid will be widely available everywhere in America. That’s going to help a lot,” he said.
On Wednesday night, Harris’s office said the vice president was taking Paxlovid, presumably only as a precaution. Elsewhere in the district, the party planning continued.