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As Covid spreads through DC, it’s business as usual at the White House


WASHINGTON — The White House is making no changes to its Covid protocols, despite a series of groundbreaking infections among President Joe Biden’s inner circle.

These new cases include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was with Biden in the days before he tested positive for the virus.. On Friday afternoon, the White House said Biden had again tested negative for Covid.

Earlier on Friday, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield acknowledged that it remains possible the president could still contract the disease at some point.

“We’re taking every precaution to make sure we keep him safe, the vice president safe, the first lady, the second gentleman, our staff here. But, you know, it’s definitely possible that he will test positive. for Covid, and he is vaccinated, boosted and protected against the most severe strains of the virus,” Bedingfield said in an interview on CNN.

Still, the White House hosted an event on Friday to mark Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Although it took place outdoors, only those who were expected to be in close contact with the president were tested and masks were not required on the White House campus.

Jackson watched the vote with Biden at the White House on Thursday, where she and Biden, maskless, kissed and held hands as the Senate voted on his nomination.

White House officials maintain they have enough procedures in place to protect the president, who received his second booster dose last week, as they urge the country to return to normal and Biden begins to attend large gatherings without a mask. While masks are no longer required around the White House, everyone who meets Biden is tested and meetings are often socially distanced.

But infectious disease experts, including those who have advised the White House, have warned that given the prominence of the presidency and Biden’s age, the White House could do more, such as requiring masks at big events. indoor events.

“We only have one president, and he’s 79,” said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “Obviously you have to be socially distant and you should really think about wearing masks. But I’m the conservative public health guy, I’m not the president who has to lead the country to economic recovery.

One preventative measure Biden could take after his exposure to Pelosi given his age would be to be treated with a monoclonal antibody as post-exposure prophylaxis, which is FDA-cleared for people at high risk of becoming seriously ill, they said. Schaffner and other physicians. . The White House did not respond to questions about whether Biden would receive preventative treatments.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would take no extra precautions since he was with Pelosi at two White House events, including one where he hugged Pelosi and gave her a hug. kiss on the cheek, as it was not considered close contact under CDC guidelines.

These guidelines, which have not been updated since October 2020, state that a person is considered a close contact if they are within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes with an infected person within two days. following his symptoms or a positive test. Close contacts are advised to wear a properly fitted mask for 10 days, take precautions when traveling and avoid contact with people at high risk of serious illness.

But public health experts say those guidelines are outdated given how much more transmissible omicron and its newer subvariant are.

“I would consider him a close contact,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at New York University who advised Biden’s transition team. “Fifteen minutes was a bit arbitrary and pre-delta (variant) guidance. Omicron is more contagious than delta.

Along with Pelosi, Biden’s sister Valerie Biden Owens tested positive for Covid on Thursday but was not considered close contact with the president, according to a statement from her publisher, Celadon Books. Other positive cases this week include Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, as well as a number of White House staffers.

While Vice President Kamala Harris, who tested negative on Thursday, was deemed a close contact after her communications director was infected this week, she did not wear a mask while presiding over the confirmation vote. of the Jackson Senate where she interacted with Senate staff.

Harris’ office said she was not wearing a mask because she was socially distant during voting and had “limited and brief interactions” with others.

Following the CDC’s recommendation that people in most parts of the country be mask-free, Biden has attended large maskless rallies indoors where he often talks closely with, shakes hands and kisses attendees. .

After signing a bill at the White House on Wednesday, Biden worked the crowd, shaking hands, taking selfies and chatting with members of Congress mostly without masks for more than 20 minutes after the end of the event. On the same day, Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Adam Schiff, D-California, tested positive for Covid after attending the Gridiron dinner in white tie over the weekend.

PSAKI, who tested positive for Covid again last month, said on Thursday the White House was following stricter pandemic protocols than CDC recommendations.

Employees surrounding Biden follow a regular testing schedule, people who go to see the president are tested that day, and meetings with Biden are often socially distanced, Psaki said. Harris and First Lady Jill are also being tested for these meetings, PSAki added.

White House employees who test positive are required to self-isolate and cannot return to work until they test negative, a step beyond CDC guidelines.

Masks are not needed at the White House because the level of community spread in the Washington area does not meet the CDC’s threshold for indoor masking, Psaki said.

“He knows there are a number of steps and precautions that we are putting in place and taking to protect him and the vice president and other senior members of the team,” Psaki said. “That includes testing for anyone who goes to see him, that includes social distancing in meetings where possible, an extra precaution that we are taking in order to protect him and other senior White House officials. ”

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