WASHINGTON – “I believe we are at a turning point,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, coordinator of the White House pandemic response team during his first briefing, his comment unfavorably interrupted by a reporter’s cough. COVID-19 is still here, but many Americans seem to be moving forward even as the Omicron BA.2 variant continues to spread.
Passengers are maskless on airplanes, children are unmasked in schools. Washington, meanwhile, prepares for its first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in two years, plus a constellation of other parties in the coming days. Saturday’s gala itself will be hosted by comedian Trevor Noah and attended by President Biden.
dr. Anthony Fauci was supposed to attend the WHCA dinner, but said Tuesday he wouldn’t. CNN reported that 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 dozens 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 count by Axios, billed as celebrations of journalism. For many, it will serve as an opportunity to dress up and party with real flesh-and-blood people, perhaps for the first time in two years. (The gala itself requires attendees to be vaccinated and tested negative for COVID.)
Also, the WHCA isn’t the only party in the city, after two years in which the District of Columbia has been an example of caution with its pandemic restrictions — a challenging reality for a city fueled by networking and social events. They are slowly coming back, just like the tourists who are crucial for the local economy.
The American Hospital Association held its annual meeting in the District of Columbia a few days ago, with minimal health checks on attendees. “If even the health problems personally accumulate, that’s a sign that the new, more a relaxed pandemic mood may be here to stay,” noted Politico†
But the optimistic new restlessness can also be deceptive: Hundreds in the United States are dying from COVID-19 every day, and thousands are reporting new infections. “The American public is done with the pandemic, even if the virus is not done with us yet,” Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told ABC News on Sunday†
Yet with what 95% of the US population is estimated to have some degree of immunity – whether from vaccination, an infection from a previous variant or a combination of both – there seems to be a growing sense of exhaustion coupled with inevitability, especially as treatments become more and more available.
For months, the Biden administration has argued that hospitalizations are a better measure of the severity of the pandemic than new infections, as a breakthrough infection is unlikely to make a vaccinated person very ill. But as Washington returns to its pre-pandemic ways, high-profile infections are bound to grab attention and fascination.
Absent from the WHCA festivities this weekend is Vice President Kamala Harris, whose office on Tuesday announced that she had tested positive for the coronavirus† “She has not shown any symptoms, will isolate herself and continue to work from the vice president’s residence,” Harris press secretary Kirsten Allen said in a statement.
The same day he withdrew from 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 go to a party, eat in a restaurant, pack in a sports stadium. The public health guardrails around these and many other activities have broken down and we all have to make our own assessments, as Fauci did.
The risk assessment is necessarily informed by the availability of care. Public health officials have long noted the disparities in care between the rich and the needy, between white and non-white Americans, who have suffered most from the looting of the pandemic. The rush to reopen and expose is tantamount to a “public health apartheid”. Gregg Gonsalves of Yale recently performed in the Nation†
The Biden administration has long touted equality as its goal and is now trying to ensure that treatments like Paxlovid – which Jha described as “very, very effective at preventing serious illness” – are available in communities with sparse healthcare infrastructure†
Jha predicted that within weeks there would be 40,000 locations across the country for coronavirus patients to access Paxlovid. “Paxlovid will be widely available all over America. That will help a lot,” he says.
On Wednesday night, Harris’s office said: the vice president took Paxlovidprobably just as a precaution. Elsewhere in the district, party planning continued.