This year’s annual Gridiron Dinner at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. dealt a blow that few were suspecting, which itself is telling about the moment we find ourselves in. A few attendees took home doggy bags from the meal, everyone took home a story to tell, and 72 of them — more than 10 percent of the audience and climbing — took home COVID-19.
The names of the afflicted looks like a speaker’s list for commencement addresses in May. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack were all infected. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser likewise brought home an uninvited guest from the elite event.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia did not attend the dinner, but both announced they were infected in the last week. What happened at the Gridiron clearly did not stay at the Gridiron, but thankfully, the vaccines and boosters appear to have done what they are supposed to: All the reported cases so far have been on the milder end, and nobody has been hospitalized yet. Contrast that with two Octobers ago, when Donald Trump became seriously ill after becoming infected at another glitzy D.C. gathering.
President Biden did not attend the dinner, and at present appears to be free of any secondary infection due to subsequent interaction with attendees.
Which brings us to the next big item on the D.C. social calendar: the upcoming White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “The White House Correspondents Association will require those attending its annual dinner to be vaccinated against the coronavirus,” reports Axios. “The association was already requiring attendees to provide proof of a same-day negative COVID test. It is now also encouraging guests to get a second booster shot if they are eligible as soon as this week for ‘maximum protection.’”
Welcome, all and sundry, to the “Learning to Live With It” stage of the process. In one sense, you could take the Gridiron outbreak as a success story, a triumph of science even. Not even a year free from a ruthless, lethal explosion in COVID cases, 72 people got infected at a major event and not one of them died or was hospitalized. That is the hoped-for impact of the vaccines — not to make people bulletproof, but to keep the symptoms manageable — and in this case, like Hodor, they had one job and they did it.
Additionally, it’s probable that most of the Gridiron attendees were not only vaxxed to the max, but were not afflicted with conditions that would make them very acutely vulnerable to infection. The test sample we have here includes only those who are comfortable making a run at “Learning to Live With It.”
There are at least 7 million immunocompromised people in this country — many of whom would likely not have gone to that dinner, or to any event like it, for all the whiskey in Ireland. Add to that group people like me, who have prior health issues that make us ripe bait for COVID no matter how well-vaccinated we are, plus the elderly, and children under five (who aren’t yet able to be vaccinated), and you wind up with a substantial portion of the population with its nose pressed against the glass as other people take the risk, get infected, and live to fight another day.
If the moment is any indication, “Learning to Live With It” involves COVID sliding to the back of most people’s minds until a big story like the Gridiron outbreak jerks it to the fore again (New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has championed a return to normal in his city, has also been infected, is fully vaccinated, has minor symptoms and is quarantining). It is hard to complain about that — for the love of God, people need a break after the last two years — but harder again to miss the peril involved.
More than 31,000 people were infected yesterday, a slight uptick from two weeks ago — and that number is likely low, given the number of people who are testing at home and not reporting their cases. The BA.2 subvariant is now the dominant strain of COVID in the U.S., and scientists are watching like hawks to see if it has the muscle to create another massive surge. If it does, “Learning to Live With It” will have to downshift hard back into “Duck, Cover and Mask.”
Getting people to comply with that after another small breath of fresh air may come to be one of the biggest challenges we have faced so far.
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