COVID comes to the White House


WASHINGTON — On July 4, President Biden declared “our independence from a deadly virus.” But the virus had other ideas, as has frequently been the case throughout the pandemic.

This week brought news, first reported by Axios, that a White House staffer has tested positive for the coronavirus after a reception with Democratic lawmakers from Texas who were in Washington to prevent the passage of new voting restrictions in the state Legislature.

The positive test came on Monday. The reception took place last week.

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

A member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff also tested positive for the coronavirus after having attended that reception, which was held at the Eaton DC hotel.

According to Axios, the reception was held at a rooftop bar. Outdoor settings tend to mitigate spread of the virus, but details about the reception remain unclear. Several of the Texas legislators, who decamped from Austin to Washington last week, have tested positive.

The White House said the staffer had “mild symptoms.” Both that staffer and the member of Pelosi’s team had been fully vaccinated.

Still, the news was a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. To be sure, Biden has said much the same thing. “We’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said in his July 4 speech, in which he also envisioned a pandemic-free future.

In fact, that future appears to be here for the 161.4 million Americans who are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates are especially high in Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Pacific West. Meanwhile, states with lower vaccination rates, including Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas, appear to be experiencing a resurgence of the virus.

There is no Democratic stronghold quite like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, of course; White House staffers have been fully vaccinated for months. But “breakthrough infections” can happen, especially when it comes to the Delta variant, which is now dominant in the United States.

Rochelle Walensky and Anthony Fauci
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci testify before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Getty Images)

Even then, the infections almost never lead to serious or severe illness. Earlier this month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky revealed that of COVID-19 deaths tracked throughout June in some states, 99.5 percent were among the unvaccinated.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the White House infection during a Tuesday press briefing. “We know there will be breakthrough cases, but as this incident shows, cases in vaccinated individuals are typically mild,” she said.

Still, any breach at the White House is major news, whether it is protesters climbing over security fencing or a pathogen hitching a ride into the West Wing. The development is also a reminder that case counts will probably continue to rise, especially as people come back to offices and children return to schools. How institutions respond, particularly if the infections are among vaccinated people, could shape the course of the pandemic in the coming months.

During the last months of President Donald Trump’s term in office, the White House experienced an outbreak of its own. But even as Trump himself became sick, many staffers refused to wear face masks, which at the time were widely seen as the best protection against the coronavirus.

Vaccines would become available right as Trump prepared to leave office, and Biden has made halting community transmission of the coronavirus a priority. That can be especially difficult in a country as large as the United States, one where people enjoy freedom of travel. While the District of Columbia has vaccinated 54 percent of its population, Texas enjoys only a 43 percent inoculation rate.

Joe Biden
President Biden at a White House event on Tuesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Experts say that even if the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the Delta variant, they are all but certain to keep people out of the hospital. “If you're vaccinated, I wouldn't worry,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, recently wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, the White House seemed to be going about its daily business on Tuesday, with the person who tested positive recuperating at home. The president met with the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the vice president had breakfast with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Both events took place in real life, without masks, much as they would have before the coronavirus pandemic.

Cover thumbnail photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images


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