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The Gridiron Club Superspreader Event Shows We Can’t Just Go Back to Normal

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Chris Kleponis/CNP via ZUMA

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At his State of the Union address on March 1, as the coronavirus’ Omicron variant was cresting, President Joe Biden laid out his strategy for managing the pandemic. “Covid-19 need no longer control our lives,” he declared. “If you’re immunocompromised or have some other vulnerability, we have treatments and free high-quality masks,” he said. Overall, though, “it’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.”

Since then, a new Omicron subvariant, called BA.2, has emerged, and infection rates are showing signs of rebounding, especially in the Northeast. On cue, Washington, DC, has just endured its one of its biggest superspreader events since then-President Donald Trump’s infamous mask-free party celebrating the ascension of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, back in September 2020, months before the emergence of vaccines. Here’s the New York Times:

At least 53 people have tested positive for the coronavirus since attending The Gridiron Club and Foundation’s annual dinner last Saturday in Washington, the group’s president confirmed on Friday.

The Gridiron Club dinner, an annual white-tie roast between journalists and presidential administrations, was held at the Renaissance Hotel. But a night of good-natured ribbing has devolved into an outbreak of cases among Washington’s elite, including members of Congress, members of the president’s cabinet and journalists.

Biden didn’t attend the event, but several people in his circle did, including some who have since tested positive: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Valerie Biden Owens, the president’s sister. Another Cabinet member who was present, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, announced on Twitter on April 9 that come down with Covid, adding that “thankfully my symptoms are mild.”

Whether or not anyone falls seriously ill from a Covid case picked up at the soiree, the incident is a reminder that the coronavirus is still very much with us. As Times opinion writer Sarah Wildman noted in a Saturday column, “estimates suggest about 3 percent to 4 percent of Americans are immunosuppressed,” and thus remain vulnerable to serious illness from an exposure to the virus.  Their number includes Wildman’s teenage daughter, a cancer survivor. 

Maybe Biden was right that Covid should no longer dominate our lives. But that shouldn’t mean reestablishing the pre-pandemic status quo. “Returning to what once was is not possible for all; we need, instead, a new normal, one that recognizes that everyone deserves the chance to participate in daily life,” Wildman wrote. “In practical terms that could mean, say, that the family of a child undergoing chemotherapy might ask her classmates and teachers to don masks to protect her against Covid (and other diseases like flu), without having to sue the school to comply.” 


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