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Biden signing ceremony

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (far right) attended an event with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other administration officials on April 5, 2022, two days before testing positive for the coronavirus. At least 67 people who attended the Gridiron Club dinner on April 2, including at least three members of Biden's Cabinet, have also tested positive. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Public Health Experts Raise Alarm Amid Capitol Hill Covid-19 Outbreak

The federal government's messaging on Covid-19 community levels may be giving the public a false sense of confidence, one doctor cautioned, calling for public masking when cases are surging.

Julia Conley

Public health experts on Sunday warned that the U.S. public may not be getting a full, accurate picture of their risk of contracting the coronavirus—and their need to take precautions like masking in public indoor spaces—as a number of high-profile Covid-19 cases were reported on Capitol Hill several weeks after mitigation efforts were largely dropped in cities across the country.

At least 67 people who attended the annual Gridiron Club dinner last weekend—more than 10% of the guests—have now tested positive for Covid-19, including Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

"We are not at endemic levels that we just need to live with. When the virus is surging we should reinstitute masks in public places."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not attend the annual gathering of politicians and media and business players, but tested positive last week after being in contact with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Crystal Watson of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told The Hill Sunday that it is "hard to tell" exactly how indicative the high-profile surge in cases is of nationwide trends, but added, "I do think we're going to see an uptick nationally," while other experts cautioned that the current status of Covid-19 transmission and case numbers in the U.S. is hard to gauge.

BA.2, a subvariant of the Omicron variant which is more easily transmitted, now accounts for 72% of reported Covid-19 cases.

However, due to a lack of testing and heavy reliance on at-home tests—the results of which are generally not included in tallies by state health officials or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—"case counts and testing are progressively becoming shaky indicators" of the state of the pandemic, Dr. Jonathan Quick of the Duke Global Health Institute told NBC News.

"I do think we are in the middle of a surge, the magnitude of which I can’t tell you," Dr. Zeke Emanuel, vice provost of global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, told the outlet. "We just don't have a lot of case counts."

With more than 66% of people in the U.S. having received at least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine—but fewer than 30% having gotten a booster shot—the population is far better protected from severe cases, hospitalizations, and death than it was before the vaccines were widely available. But some public health experts are warning that the looming end of funding for oral antiviral treatments, vaccines, surveillance of new variants, and tests may severely weaken the country's defenses in the coming weeks.

According to NBC News, there is not currently enough funding to purchase fourth vaccine doses for all Americans if they are needed, and testing capacity is expected to decline in the coming months.

Some public health experts have expressed frustration with the federal government's messaging and accounting of Covid-19 cases and current risk levels, with George Washington University professor Dr. Jonathan Reiner and Scripps Research Translational Institute founder Eric Topol criticizing the CDC's "misleading" promotion of its "County-level Covid-19 Community Levels" tool.

The tool shows whether hospitals in each county have capacity and if there is a "high potential for healthcare strain"—not whether the virus is spreading widely in communities.

While much of the Northeast is green on the Covid-19 Community Levels map, indicating a "low" level, those counties are largely red or orange on the community transmission map, indicating at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. The CDC says those counties have a "substantial" or "high" transmission level.

"This is what individuals should use to gauge individual risk," Reiner said of the community transmission map.

Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, argued last Thursday that while the Gridiron dinner—where guests had to show proof of vaccination but not a negative test—"was probably a Covid-19 superspreader... events like this should still go on."

Individuals should be "thoughtful about their own risks and the risks they pose to others," she added.

That guidance comes in absence of leadership from policymakers regarding masking and testing requirements for large events, critics said.

"This is not the new normal," said Reiner of the Gridiron event. "Covid is surging in places like D.C. and New York. CDC’s map has hidden this. We are not at endemic levels that we just need to live with. When the virus is surging we should reinstitute masks in public places."

While there is "nothing abnormal about socializing," said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases physician at Stanford University, "there's something very abnormal about mass infections. If you can't understand that distinction you may have given up on the possibility that our government can do better."

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