WASHINGTON — The White House is making no changes to its Covid protocols, despite a string of breakthrough infections among President Joe Biden’s inner circle.
Those new cases include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was with Biden in the days before she tested positive for the virus. On Friday afternoon, the White House said Biden had again tested negative for Covid.
Earlier Friday, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield had acknowledged it remained possible the president could still contract the disease at some point.
"We take every precaution to ensure that we keep him safe, the vice president safe, the first lady, second gentleman, our staff here. But, you know, it is certainly possible that he will test positive for Covid, and he is vaccinated, boosted and protected from the most severe strains of the virus," Bedingfield said in an interview on CNN.
Still, the White House held an event Friday to mark the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. While it took place outdoors, only those 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, without masks, embraced and held hands as the Senate voted on her 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 resumes attending large, maskless gatherings. While masks are no longer required around the White House, everyone who meets with Biden is tested and meetings are often socially distanced.
But infectious disease specialists, including those who have advised the White House, cautioned that given the importance of the presidency and Biden’s age, there is more the White House could be doing, such as requiring masks at large indoor events.
“We only have one president, and he is 79,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease professor at Vanderbilt University. “Clearly, you ought to be socially distant and you really ought to think about wearing masks. But I’m the conservative public health guy, I’m not the president having to lead the country into an economic revival.”
One preventative step Biden could take after his exposure to Pelosi given his age would be getting treated with a monoclonal antibody as a post-exposure prophylaxis, which is cleared by the FDA for those at high risk for getting seriously ill, Schaffner and other doctors said. The White House didn’t respond to a question about whether Biden would be given any preventative treatments.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden won’t be taking any additional precautions since being with Pelosi during two events at the White House, including one where he hugged Pelosi and gave her a kiss on the cheek, because he wasn’t considered a close contact under CDC guidelines.
Those guidelines, which haven’t been updated since October 2020, say someone is considered a close contact if they are within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes with an infected person within two days of their symptoms or a positive test. Close contacts are advised to wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days, take precautions when traveling and avoid contact with those at high risk for severe illness.
But public health experts say those guidelines are out of date given how much more transmissible omicron and its new 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 somewhat arbitrary and guidance pre-delta (variant). Omicron is more infectious than delta.”
Along with Pelosi, Biden’s sister Valerie Biden Owens tested positive for Covid Thursday, but wasn’t considered a close contact to 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 Thursday, was deemed a close contact after the infection of her communications director this week, she didn’t wear a mask while presiding over the Senate confirmation vote of Jackson where she interacted with Senate staff.
Harris’s office said she didn’t wear a mask because she was socially distanced during the vote and had “limited and brief interactions” with others.
Following the CDC recommendation that people in most parts of the country could go without masks, Biden has been attending large maskless gatherings indoors where he often talks closely with, shakes the hands of and embraces attendees.
Following a bill signing at the White House on Wednesday, Biden worked the crowd, shaking hands, taking selfies and chatting with mostly maskless members of Congress for more than 20 minutes after the event concluded. That same day, Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., tested positive for Covid after attending the white-tie Gridiron Dinner over the weekend.
Psaki, who again tested positive for Covid last month, said Thursday that the White House has been following pandemic protocols that are more stringent than CDC recommendations.
Employees surrounding Biden are on a regular testing schedule, people going 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 tested for those meetings, Psaki added.
White House employees who do test positive are required to isolate and cannot return to work until they have tested negative, a step beyond the CDC’s guidance.
Masks aren’t required in the White House because the level of community spread in the Washington area doesn’t meet the CDC threshold for indoor masking, Psaki said.
“He knows there are a number of steps and precautions that we put in place and we take to protect him and protect the vice president and other senior members of the team,” Psaki said. “That includes testing for anybody who goes to see him, that includes social distancing in meetings, whenever possible, an additional precautionary step we take in order to protect him and protect other senior members of the White House.”