On the "PBS Newshour" this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci remarked that “we are out of the pandemic phase” with Covid (he later clarified his remarks, saying that decelerating numbers indicate we are not in a “full-blown explosive” phase of the pandemic). But Fauci also announced his decision not to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner, an indoor event this Saturday that expects 2,000 attendees, because of the risks of contracting the virus. “I'm 81 years old, and if I get infected, I have a much higher risk," he told CNN. President Joe Biden is 79. Both men fall in an age category at higher risk for developing severe illness if infected with Covid.
The risk for exposure to the virus at the event is not negligible. Physician and researcher Jeremy Faust estimated in a report for Inside Medicine that taking in the context — including the current case rate in Washington and negative testing the day of the event — the chance that at some point during the evening someone would be infectious is 50 percent. There is an ongoing pandemic, and the president has a decent chance of being in the room with the causative virus.
The Gridiron Club event in early April, which was linked to more than 80 cases among attendees (more than 10 percent of guests), was a cautionary tale. For that event, proof of vaccination was required, but it is unclear whether that requirement included boosters. There was no testing requirement, and few masks were worn. The event essentially embodied a “vaccination only” approach that abandoned other measures, and the results were grave indeed: Some attendees report they still have not fully recovered, and the spread beyond the dinner to families, friends and co-workers can only be imagined. It was the kind of event that in ordinary times might trigger a CDC outbreak investigation.
Fortunately, the president himself is acting exactly as if a pandemic is in play, minimizing his own risk and taking the kind of layered precautions public health officials have been advising for these kinds of events; the same measures health officials appeared appalled to not see in play for the Gridiron event. Per press secretary Jen Psaki, Biden will likely wear a mask when not speaking and will not attend the eating portion of the dinner. “It’s a risk assessment and a decision he made on a personal basis,” Psaki said.
If the Gridiron dinner were the exemplar for vaccines alone being adequate, then the White House Correspondents' Dinner seems to be modeling the personal risk calculator: Where Person A opts out, Person B opts in, but in a modified way to minimize exposure, and Person C gets to attend as if there were no pandemic at all. All made these decisions after considering their individual health status, the risks conferred to their close contacts, and the scenario at hand, where the crowd is vaccinated (if not boosted), some manner of negative test has been secured that day, and the quality of ventilation has or has not been assured.
But that scenario neglects Person D, who is staffing the event and can neither choose to stay home nor modify things like their time at the event or proximity to others. Cameron Shaw, a New York City beverage consultant and hospitality activist (and also my sister-in-law), points out that service workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s harms while rarely having health insurance or rapid access to testing, health care and newer therapeutics. “And now we are finding ourselves in environments serving (often very wealthy) people who had the luxury of working from home with bomb-proof health care plans for the majority of the pandemic,” she tells me. “Those who rely on the wages from these jobs to pay the rent don’t have a choice about whether we’re here for people to brazenly breathe on.” The personal risk calculator has a glitch. As Anne Sosin, policy fellow at Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, told me, “It obscures the unequal terms of participation.”
I wish some attendees saw an additional choice, to consider what kinds of things might allow Persons A, B, C and D to be safe at this event. Universal mask wearing, preferably of N95s, KN95s or KF94s, would provide an additional layer of national security, protecting our president from a real threat (at a time when our vice president has tested positive for Covid). It could allow Biden to more fully participate in the activities rather than asking him, the primary roastee in attendance, to perform acrobatics to accommodate the rest of the crowd. It would indicate concrete support for workers’ rights. It might even allow Fauci to attend the “nerd prom,” as he surely deserves.
As cases ebb and flow, we all have been making numerous decisions around risk for ourselves; even when mask mandates were common, there were a million undefined situations in which personal judgment came into place. Some people want the bothersome social elements to be utterly gone. But I suggest we stay willing to be inconvenienced. Nationally, cases and hospitalizations are up again. We remain part of a global pandemic. Respecting that means we respect all the lives present in the room, and those connected to them.