(The Hill) – COVID-19 cases among attendees at the White House Correspondents Dinner last weekend are mounting, highlighting the continued threat of the virus as cases rise nationally.
There is no exact count, and it is not clear which dinner attendees contracted the virus at the dinner itself or at one of the many parties last weekend surrounding it.
But the string of reported cases does emphasize the point that even as the country seeks to move on from the virus, large indoor gatherings do carry some risk.
The cases have also played into an ongoing debate, with some arguing that the current era of COVID-19 allows vaccinated and boosted people to decide to attend large gatherings even if it means a small risk, while others are more cautious, pointing to the downstream effects on other people of increased transmission.
Reactions among attendees testing positive also varied.
“I’m yet another [White House Correspondents Association] weekend casualty,” tweeted Julia Ioffe, a correspondent at Puck News. “I knew I was taking a risk and, well, here we are!”
Jada Yuan, who covered the dinner for The Washington Post, also tweeted she tested positive afterward and would have to miss an international work trip she had been looking forward to.
“Hindsight and all that, but wear a mask or leave or tell your employer you can’t go if you’re in a situation where you feel uncomfortable,” she tweeted. “Those consequences are usually better than the ones you’ll face if you get sick.”
The dinner did require that all attendees test negative the day of attendance and that they be vaccinated. But those measures were not always in place at the surrounding parties that weekend.
“We worked hard to publicize our protocols and encouraged those eligible to get booster shots in the weeks leading up to the dinner,” Steve Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, wrote in an email. “Our event implemented protocols that went beyond any guidance or regulation issued by the CDC or the DC health department. We wish anyone who may not be feeling well a speedy recovery.”
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, wrote in The Washington Post last month after another string of cases after a different DC gathering, the Gridiron Dinner, that the event “shows what living with covid-19 looks like.”
She noted on Friday that the Correspondents Dinner had testing and vaccination requirements, so some of the cases could have come from surrounding events that did not have those precautions.
More broadly, she said, referring to vaccinations and new treatments like the highly-effective Pfizer treatment Paxlovid, “we have tools that allow us to continue the social activities that all of us as humans crave.”
“The key metric that we should be looking at here is are people getting severely ill,” she added.
There are no reports so far of any dinner attendees being hospitalized.
Attendees at the White House Correspondents Dinner are generally privileged and well-connected people, who have much better access to treatments like Paxlovid, as well as paid time off and other benefits, than some Americans.
The nature of a highly-infectious disease like COVID-19 is that cases from the dinner will not stop there, and people can transmit the virus onto others.
“It’s not about the people who are at the event,” said Walid Gellad, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “What you do impacts what happens to other people.”
“It’s probably very easy for them to get Paxlovid,” he said of the “highly privileged” dinner attendees. “For others that the people at this gathering might affect, it may be more difficult.”
There are additional ways to make events safer, he noted, that do not come down to only the simple choice of having events or not having events, he said, noting measures like improving ventilation or reducing the size of the event to reduce crowding, in addition to the testing and vaccine measures.
The dinner’s most high-profile guest, President Biden, has so far avoided testing positive.
The White House has acknowledged it is possible he will get the virus at some point and the “risk assessment” that went into attending the dinner.
Biden said in his State of the Union Address in March that the country had reached a point where COVID-19 “no longer need control our lives.”
Asked on Friday about the president’s precautions on Friday given the string of COVID-19 cases after the dinner, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “He went to the Correspondents’ Dinner to honor the work of all of you and your colleagues and made a decision — a risk assessment, like we all do every day, that that was important for him to do.”
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