Politics

COVID wave hits Dems just as they’re scaling back health protocols

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(The Hill) — A growing list of high-profile Democrats are coming down with COVID-19 just as President Biden and party leaders are set to roll back public health precautions designed to combat the highly contagious virus. 

The rash of positive cases — which has hit both members of Congress and prominent figures in the administration — is not so much a health concern for the affected policymakers, who all say they’re vaccinated, boosted and showing no symptoms that might require hospitalization. 

But the untimely wave has created new political headaches for Democratic leaders as they seek to move the country back to something approaching normalcy — a delicate dance in the midst of a challenging election year when both chambers are up for grabs; Republicans are clamoring to end what they consider onerous health protocols; and COVID fatigue has emerged as its own epidemic after more than two years of social restrictions, health care uncertainties and economic upheaval triggered by the global pandemic.

The list of those recently infected features a who’s who of prominent Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas); and two members of President Biden’s cabinet: Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, also tested positive this week. All but Pelosi appear to have been infected after attending Saturday’s Gridiron Club dinner, an annual affair in Washington.

The infections, some of them in proximity to Biden, have put the White House on the defensive when it comes to the president’s busy public schedule amid the wave. 

“While we have seen an increase in cases around people … some of us may know, I also would note cases remain down,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted Friday.

The outbreak highlights the dilemma facing Democratic leaders, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, as they position themselves to ease the public health protocols they’ve long championed while simultaneously bracing for another potential spike in a virus that will soon reach a grim milestone: 1 million deaths in the United States alone.

Pelosi, ahead of Biden’s State of the Union speech to Congress last month, eliminated the mask mandates that had been in place for the House floor for the two years prior. Democratic leaders are also poised to reopen the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC) to public tours, recently returning the dining tables to the CVC’s cafeteria after months when it had been used as a makeshift COVID testing site. 

And Biden administration health officials are eyeing the elimination of immigration restrictions at the Southern border, known as Title 42, which were adopted two years ago by former President Trump in the name of fighting the spread of the virus — a repeal that’s sparked an outcry from Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats.

Yet while the number of cases across the nation has fallen slightly over the last two weeks — and deaths and hospitalizations are down drastically over the same span, according to a tally kept by The New York Times — the outlook is a mixed bag on the state level with the arrival of a recent omicron subvariant, which has led to case increases in roughly half the country. It’s a trend that has not been overlooked by Democratic leaders in Washington, who are watching those numbers carefully.

“This pandemic is not over,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) warned earlier in the week, defending the Democrats’ push for more federal pandemic relief. “We’re still having people die, we’re still having people get sick. … And we can’t take our eye off the ball in making sure that we continue to help.”

The politics surrounding the coronavirus have always been fraught, pitting public health officials and Democrats, who’ve argued for strict preventative measures, against Trump and his conservative allies in Congress and state houses across the country, who’ve bemoaned the erosion of individual freedoms. The recent confluence of events — the uncertainty surrounding the new omicron subvariant, the wave of cases in Washington and the Democrats’ efforts to ease COVID restrictions — has only complicated the math for party leaders. 

Pelosi, 82, had visited the White House on two occasions in the last week, including a health care event on Tuesday, when the Speaker was seen hugging the president. The White House on Friday acknowledged that the 79-year-old Biden may be at risk of contracting the virus, but emphasized that he is vaccinated and recently received his second booster shot. 

“Like anyone else, the president may at some point test positive for COVID,” Psaki said. 

Psaki defended Biden’s decision to host an event earlier in the day honoring the historic confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, emphasizing that it was staged outdoors. 

“His doctors have assessed that these are risks that can be taken,” she said. “It’s important for him to continue his presidential duties now and even if he tests positive in the future.”

The wave arrives as Democratic leaders are pressing for billions of dollars in new spending for testing, vaccinations and other COVID-alleviation programs. The bill hit a wall in the Senate this week after Republicans balked at the administration’s plan to eliminate the Title 42 immigration restrictions, and House GOP leaders are already airing their own concerns with the idea of providing a new round of federal aid.

“The best way right now to get relief to families and small businesses is to open up all the economy, end all the mandates,” Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the second-ranked House Republican, told reporters this week.  

Republicans, though, have their own problems with COVID messaging. While most in the party have downplayed the threat of the virus since its arrival — and have roundly criticized the Democrats’ health protocols as an infringement on individual liberties — they’re now demanding that the Trump-era immigration restrictions remain in place to protect the health of Americans.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) this week lamented the repeal of a tool “that allows you to turn people away because of communicable diseases — which of course we’re dealing with during COVID.”

Democrats have been quick to pounce in defense of Biden, accusing Republicans of downplaying the health threat of COVID — except in the case of a policy that would banish immigrants seeking legal asylum.

“Title 42 was put in [by] the former president as a stalking horse for border security,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, said this week. “It was cloaked in pandemic discussion, but the pandemic has changed.”

Alex Gangitano and Morgan Chalfant contributed. 

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