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Harris has Covid-19. Fauci is staying away. But Biden still going to journalism gala with 2,600 people

Business Insider US
Joe Biden removes his mask before speaking at an event.
Joe Biden removes his mask before speaking at an event.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • The president has a packed travel schedule despite top Democrats getting sick with Covid this week. 
  • Biden is attending the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday with 2,600 guests.
  • He's vaccinated and double boosted, but also 79-years old.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Vice President Kamala Harris is out sick with Covid. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical advisor, just dropped out of a glitzy media, politician, and celebrity "nerd prom" for fear of exposure. 

Yet President Joe Biden has still RSVP'd yes to the black-tie gala, formally known as the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. In just two days, he'll get roasted by comedian Trevor Noah and deliver his own zingers to more than 2,620 attendees in the Washington Hilton's basement-level ballroom. 

On top of that, Biden's travel schedule is chock full. On Wednesday, he eulogized former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. On Sunday, he'll travel to Minnesota for former Vice President Walter Mondale's memorial service.

All the while, Covid cases in the Northeast are rising, and two more senators tested positive this week. While neither appears to have gotten seriously ill, the shortage makes voting all the more difficult in a 50-50 Senate. 

The situation has many — including some in the Washington press corp — wondering: Why isn't the 79-year-old president being more careful in the days ahead? 

"Appreciate Biden's support of a free press, but wish he wouldn't put himself in harm's way for the nerd prom," tweeted Carol Eisenberg, deputy health and science editor at the Washington Post. 

After all, just three weeks ago a more exclusive media dinner in Washington known as the Gridiron turned into a superspreader event that infected at least three Cabinet members.

And Biden's behavior today is a far cry from when he worked to win the presidency, holding virtual campaign events from the safety of his basement during shutdown orders.

But a lot has changed since then. The president has been vaccinated and twice boosted — factors that reduce the likelihood that he'll need hospitalisation or that he'll die from Covid-19.

Still, the White House is taking some precautions. Biden will not be at the dinner portion of the correspondents' gala and will wear a mask except when he's speaking, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at her weekly press conference Wednesday. 

White House says it supports the press, unlike Trump

Psaki defended the White House's health and safety protocols when asked about them this week by reporters, and said there were no plans to make alterations despite Harris' infection. Everyone who meets with Biden has to get tested and socially distance, she said.

"It is possible he could test positive for Covid," Psaki said of Biden Tuesday, vowing to publicly disclose if it happens.

For the forthcoming dinner, all gala attendees have to show proof of vaccination and take a same-day Covid test, according to guidance the WHCA circulated on Wednesday. The Gridiron Dinner didn't have the same testing requirement. 

But the White House should go a step further and have a medical provider administer tests to anyone seated near Biden, said Dr. Kavita Patel, a former healthcare policy official in the Obama administration who is a physician at Mary's Center in DC. Doing so would help to reduce the chance that guests might not be testing themselves properly, she said. 

Patel said she understood that going to events such as the dinner were important to show "the country is in a better place."

"It's possible for him to go but do it in the safest way possible," she said. "I think he can go with incredibly stricter safety protocols around him. But I also think it's reasonable for him to not go because the second in command has Covid." 

This is the first White House Correspondents Dinner in two years following a pandemic hiatus. Biden is also resuming a decades-long tradition of presidents' attending after Donald Trump repeatedly snubbed the event because of his fraught relationship with the press. 

Psaki sought to draw this distinction on Wednesday, noting Trump regularly "questioned the legitimacy of the press." 

"It's an opportunity to honour the work of all of you and many of your colleagues and to — and to talk about the importance of journalism in the world," Psaki said Tuesday about Biden's decision to attend, saying he makes "risk assessments" and "has access to the best healthcare in the world."  

Federal health officials have begun telling people to evaluate their own personal risks when deciding how to live their lives. Before, they largely stressed that people should think about the risk they pose to other people when they decide whether to gather with groups indoors. 

Facing the midterm election in seven months, the Biden administration has tried to portray a sense of post-pandemic normalcy to the public. Part of returning to normal means the president attending events like this weekend's gala.

But Fauci, who is only two years older than Biden, pulled out of the gala on Tuesday and the following day said on CBS that, "We certainly cannot say the pandemic is over. It is not over."

For guests or people working the event on Saturday, risks are not zero, including for lingering symptoms from "long Covid." Biden's age would put him at risk for a more difficult case, though his personal doctor hasn't reported he has any high risk underlying conditions.

Dinner jumbles Covid messaging

There have long been questions about whether the White House Correspondents Dinner is appropriate from a journalism ethics perspective. While it's also a fundraiser and awards ceremony, photos and videos of the event can feed into a public perception that the press is too cozy with the politicians they're supposed to cover aggressively. 

The forthcoming event may also be jarring from a public health messaging perspective. Top healthcare correspondents last week were sounding the alarm about a Trump-appointed judge striking down a mask mandate on public transit. 

Yet their colleagues covering the White House will on Saturday sit at tables packed with famous and wealthy guests. Numerous smaller events punctuate the weekend, including happy hours and brunches.

Politically, the event is a target. 

"This is a continuation of the hypocrisy of the left when it comes to Covid — on the one hand they want to extend a federal mask mandate for the traveling public on the other hand they want to attend a elitist superspreader event for 2,000 in a closed ballroom," Sean Spicer, who was press secretary under Trump, told Insider in an email.  

Even if people are wearing masks they will take them off while eating and drinking, opening themselves up to infection. The public health messaging risks getting muddled. 

"If you're a normal person, especially someone who doesn't think a lot about public health or politics, it seems like such a disconnect," said Michael Mackert, director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. 

The visuals of the gala could make it hard for the public to determine whether the same rules apply to everyone and how officials are making decisions, he said.

"The visual is going to say something that no amount of words can," he said. "It's going to come across poorly." 

At the same time, Mackert added, there's the risk that Biden skipping the event would send a message to the public that vaccines don't work.

"I don't envy them making the call," he said. "It feels very lose-lose"


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