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WASHINGTON - A night of light-hearted political satire is increasingly yielding newfound anxiety among political elites, as a growing number of attendees report positive COVID test results.
The annual Gridiron Dinner, which attracts a wide swath of government officials and journalists, is being eyed as a potential source for the mounting number of positive tests for the coronavirus.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo were the latest to disclose positive tests after attending the Saturday night dinner at the downtown Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Vice President Kamala Harris' communications director Jamal Simmons, who is listed among the attendees in the dinner's program, also tested positive on Wednesday. Harris was in close contact with Simmons and will follow CDC guidance for close contacts but maintain her public schedule, according to her office.
Earlier this week, two other high-profile attendees, Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif; and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, also disclosed positive tests.
The results have prompted a wave of testing and contact tracing to alert other guests to exposure.
The annual event had been paused during the COVID-19 pandemic but was making its return for the first time since 2019 drawing some-600 guests to the white-tie dinner. USA TODAY journalists were among those in attendance.
"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."
In Garland's case, the Justice Department announced the attorney general's test result just hours after he appeared at a briefing announcing new Russia-related enforcement actions.
The attorney general requested a test "after learning that he may have been exposed to the virus," according to a Justice statement.
"He is not experiencing symptoms; the Attorney General is fully vaccinated and boosted."
Garland is expected to isolate at home for at least five days. He will work virtually until he tests negative, and contact tracing will be done, Justice said.
It was not immediately clear whether Garland's exposure had occurred at the Justice Department or at the Gridiron dinner.
Earlier Wednesday, Garland appeared at a briefing along with top Justice officials, including Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and FBI Director Chris Wray.
Schiff and Castro both said Tuesday that they had tested positive.
Schiff said in a tweet that he is “feeling fine” after testing positive and would quarantine based on CDC guidelines. He said he is fully vaccinated and boosted. Castro, who is vaccinated and boosted, said he tested positive on Tuesday after receiving a negative test on Monday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky both attended the the dinner as well, according to a program for the event. The National Institutes of Health and CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The latest batch of positives among administration officials and members of Congress follows a wave of cases in the White House. Press Secretary Jen Psaki tested positive for COVID-19 last month, as did Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, and CIA Director William Burns also tested positive in March.
The outbreaks come as the pace of new cases in the District of Columbia more than doubled in March, city data show.
The city reported some 51 cases per 100,000 people per week on March 6, and a rate of about 110 on March 27, the latest date available.
The city's rate was about 866 in early January, or about eight times higher than the latest reported figure.
The city dropped many of its mandates requiring people to wear masks indoors or show proof of vaccination in February as cases dropped. Last month, schools in the District similarly dropped mask requirements for students and staff.
Experts say the outbreak and increases in infections in the city aren’t cause for concern – at least not at the moment. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in an interview that these types of super-spreader events are likely to be a more permanent fixture as people resume normal activities like dinners and large gatherings.
“There is always going to be this risk,” he said. “Every now and then events like this are going to happen, where lots of people get sick. But the hope is we have enough immunity in the population that the people who get sick are not getting so sick that they're having to go to the hospital.”
But, Dowdy added, this should serve as an example for how people should treat going back to indoor activities that were previously too risky due to COVID-19. He said it’s important to keep updated with the latest data in your community and weigh the risks, especially with large indoor events.
Dowdy noted some areas of the country are appearing to see an increase in cases, including New York, Atlanta and D.C., but it’s not necessarily indicative of another pending wave of infections and deaths.
“We don't have to panic,” he said.
Contributing: Mike Stucka
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID: AG Garland, Sec. Raimondo, other Gridiron guests test positive