Health Care

COVID-19 cases among key DC players jump after Gridiron dinner

At least five high-profile Washington players have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the star-studded Gridiron Club dinner last weekend, one of whom is considered a close contact of Vice President Harris

Harris’ Communications Director Jamal Simmons, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) have all tested positive for breakthrough COVID-19 cases after attending Saturday night’s event.

A number of journalists, White House staffers and personnel from the National Security Council have also tested positive for the virus after attending the dinner, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper, however, did not identify the individuals because they have not publicly announced their COVID-19 status.

Attendees at Saturday night’s dinner were required to show proof of vaccination, according to Gridiron President Tom DeFrank of the National Journal.

“All guests at the Gridiron Club dinner were required to show proof of vaccination. We understand that some of our guests have reported positive tests since the dinner. We wish them a speedy recovery,” DeFrank told The Hill in a statement.

The Gridiron Club dinner returned to Washington this weekend after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event is one of several high-profile annual gatherings in the nation’s capital, featuring skits and roasts knocking politicians and other figures.

The president typically attends the white-tie fete, but President Biden did not make an appearance this year, instead recording a video for the dinner. Biden last tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday, according to the White House.

A number of other congressional lawmakers and administration officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, special presidential envoy John Kerry and Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell attended the event, according to the Post. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky and White House press secretary Jen Psaki were also reportedly in attendance.

Simmons is the latest individual to test positive for COVID-19 following the event. Kirsten Allen, the vice president’s press secretary, said Simmons tested positive on Wednesday, and was in close contact with Harris. The vice president as a result will follow CDC guidance and consult with her physician but plans to make no changes to her public schedule.

Most individuals who tested positive following the dinner said they were experiencing mild or no symptoms. Garland took part in a press conference with other law enforcement officials on Wednesday, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, hours before the Justice Department announced his positive test.

The Justice Department told The Hill that Monaco took a COVID-19 test out of an abundance of caution, and tested negative. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who spoke at Saturday’s dinner, also took a COVID-19 test as a precaution and tested negative.

The rise in cases among Washington’s top players following Saturday night’s event is raising questions regarding the country’s return to a new, normal version of pre-pandemic life after more than two years of various restrictions and mitigation measures.

Few dinner attendees wore masks Saturday evening, people at the event told the Post. Washington, D.C., lifted its mask mandate for businesses on March 1.

Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at The George Washington University, told The Hill that the cluster of positive cases following the Gridiron Club dinner in a way is an example of “what the future of living with COVID-19 looks like.”

She emphasized the importance of vaccines as a way to prevent inevitable infections from causing severe illness.

“Infections are going to happen. What’s important is that these individuals, presumably, are vaccinated, ideally boosted, and therefore, they are very well protected from severe illness,” Wen said. “That is what it will look like moving forward. When we resume our pre-pandemic activities there is going to be a risk that individuals will contract COVID-19. But because of vaccines, the risk of serious illness is very low.”

Wen said it is not surprising that a number of individuals tested positive after Saturday’s event because “when we have individuals gathering in closed settings without masks, there will be the risk of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.”

She said it is “certainly possible” that the cases are connected to the event considering the timeline but that further investigation is needed to determine if the infections were contracted at the gathering.

The current cluster of cases comes just weeks before Washington figures are scheduled to gather again for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The soirée is also returning to Washington this year after taking two years off because of the pandemic.

The dinner will have a same-day testing requirement, though the event will not mandate vaccinations for those attending.

Asked about the upcoming gathering, Wen told The Hill that events should not be canceled, emphasizing that organizers must decide how much risk they are comfortable with.

“Events should go on. Events should not be canceled at this point. Organizers of any event should decide what is the level of risk that they are willing to take on,” Wen said. 

“Unless we’re willing to go back to lockdown, there is no such thing as zero risk,” she added.

Kelsey Carolan contributed to this report.

Tags Chris Sununu Gina Raimondo Jamal Simmons Joe Biden Merrick Garland

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