Wednesday, February 21

White House pushes past COVID-19 limits but threat of pandemic looms

The White House is simultaneously easing its own COVID-19 restrictions in an attempt to get it — and the American public — back to normal while grappling with the threat the pandemic still poses.

The delicate balance was on display this week when hundreds of maskless guests joined for in-person bill signings where President BidenJoe Biden Irish PM tests positive for COVID-19 during visit to DC CNN anchor breaks down talking to Ukrainian father whose family was killed Graham introduces resolution urging Biden to help send jets to Ukraine MORE mingled with lawmakers with no social distancing protocols in place.

But the ongoing risks of a return to normal were underscored on Tuesday evening when second gentleman Doug EmhoffDoug Emhoff Irish PM tests positive for COVID-19 during visit to DC The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – All eyes on Zelensky today Biden argues gender equality benefits everybody to mark Women’s History Month MOREwho is fully vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for the virus.

Biden had not been tested for COVID-19 since he tested negative Sunday, White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — More weapons but no plans for Ukraine Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden calls for faster gas price drop Biden’s climate alarmist nominees send a chilling message to financial institutions, the energy industry MORE told reporters on Wednesday. Biden is not considered to be a close contact of Emhoff, who attended an event earlier Tuesday honoring AmeriCorps week at an urban garden and park in Washington, DC

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Emhoff is the first out of the four principals, a group which includes the president, first lady and Vice President Harris, to contract COVID-19.

Psaki, citing health officials, said Emhoff’s positive test is not a cause for concern regarding the state of the pandemic.

The White House kicked off the month of March by easing its own COVID-19 restrictions, which began with Biden delivering his State of the Union address, a speech in which he arrived and exited the House chamber maskless while shaking hands and mingling with lawmakers. Members were also not required to wear face coverings but did have to take a COVID-19 test to be able to attend in-person.

Biden’s address came just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eased its mask guidance for a majority of the general public in communities considered low to medium risk.

Last week Biden attended the House Democrats’ retreat in Philadelphia, where he and lawmakers were unmasked. Biden was also swarmed by maskless guests on Wednesday after he spoke about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

The White House also announced it would reopen for public tours next month, the latest sign it is returning to some semblance of a pre-pandemic normalcy.

But doing so comes with risks, which are especially pronounced given Biden is 79 years old and would be at higher risk if he contracted COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated and receiving a booster shot.

Several House Democrats who attended last week’s retreat have since tested positive for COVID-19, though they were not considered close contacts of Biden.

But on Tuesday the virus hit closer to home when Emhoff, who said he is exhibiting mild symptoms, tested positive.

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Psaki was previously the most high-profile person in the White House to test positive. Her case of her occurred in October, when masks were still prevalent on campus.

But the environment at the White House has been noticeably different in recent weeks, with a number of maskless events and the lifting of face covering requirements for reporters in the briefing room.

On Tuesday, 15 lawmakers and Harris were on hand and packed around a desk as Biden signed a government funding bill. Photos of the signing gained renewed resonance hours later when Emhoff, Harris’s husband, tested positive for COVID-19.

Harris did not appear alongside Biden at all on Wednesday, and during her event on improving safety for historically Black colleges and universities, she stood alone on stage and wore a mask as she approached the podium.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University, said indoor events are not as risky as they were at the start of the pandemic during the Trump administration or early days of the Biden administration given that the vast majority of the public has either been vaccinated or has natural immunity due to infection from the virus.

Gostin said the Biden administration is clearly following public guidance from its own CDC officials, which helps in not contradicting public health officials or sending mixed messages.

“Having said all that, it is quite likely that indoor gatherings will cause the spread of COVID-19, and some participants may become very ill or need hospitalization, especially if they are vulnerable,” Gostin said. “The Biden administration is acting as if the pandemic were over, and that is far from the case.”

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But as Europe and China face a fresh round of COVID-19 case spikes, the risk of yet another variant or an increase of cases stateside still looms.

It’s not helped by Congress, who stripped and stalled $15.6 billion in COVID-19 money from the government funding bill that the White House said would prepare it for a host of measures that includes paying for testing capacity and supplying antiviral pills.

Officials on Tuesday warned that without additional funding, the allocation of monoclonal antibody treatments will be slashed starting next week, the government will not have money to buy enough vaccine doses for all Americans to receive a fourth shot if required down the road and testing capacity will be diminished starting in June.

The White House had initially pushed for $22.5 billion in additional funds to fight the pandemic and guard against future outbreaks, but the path forward in Congress, despite the lower price tag, remains unclear.

Psaki said Wednesday that Biden would use his political capital to get the coronavirus funding passed in some other way.

“I would say that we have been working around the clock over the last few days, behind the scenes and publicly, to convey very clearly to elected officials across the country and the American people what the impacts will be, so I would expect you’ ll hear from him more soon about it,” Psaki said.

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