A fight for coronavirus safety at a journalists’ gala
Still, some White House officials and experts worry that these measures are insufficient and that the events of this weekend could become another high-profile event, said three administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. as they were not authorized to discuss the matter. Behind the scenes, a leading coronavirus expert is ditching party planners hesitant to install devices that sanitize the air using ultraviolet light due to fears the devices could interfere with the program.
Don Milton, a University of Maryland environmental scientist who has advised the White House and others on airborne transmission, said he was offering a company to install the devices. toll was rebuffed by both the Correspondents’ Association and the Washington Hilton, which hosts the event. “I have engaged a team of scientists and germicidal UV lighting companies to provide, as a no-cost demonstration project, a temporary installation to help protect the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” Milton said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
In an interview, Steve Portnoy, a CBS News reporter who is president of the WHCA, said the association had security protocols in place and that Milton’s offer came too late.
“We are interested in learning more about this technology,” Portnoy said. “We are simply unable, within a week, to better understand the potential benefits or risks of what appears to be experimental technology.”
Correspondents’ dinner comes after weeks of debate over whether such events are still too risky as fast-spreading omicron subvariants, such as BA. 2, go around the world – or whether risking the coronavirus is just another danger in normal life in 2022, given the growing number of treatments to prevent the virus from progressing to serious illness in most people people.
The Gridiron Club outbreak “shows what life with covid-19 is like,” Washington Post contributor Leana S. Wen wrote this month, saying cases are unavoidable and applauding the return of it. left. “Almost all of us will contract covid-19. Let’s prepare for when we do and get on with our lives in the meantime.
But at least some people choose to opt out. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, canceled plans to attend the dinner, citing personal risk, CNN first reported late Tuesday night. In an interview on Wednesday, the 81-year-old doctor said it was his “personal choice” not to attend the event, even though he maintained the US was past the “full-fledged pandemic” phase. of the virus.
On Wednesday, the White House said Biden, 79, planned to be there to show support for the media but would skip the dinner portion of the evening and might take precautions like wearing a mask sometimes.
Many coronavirus experts say new infections linked to dinner and accompanying parties are inevitable, noting that local cases have soared, key officials such as Vice President Harris tested positive for coronavirus this week and the large number of participants means that some infected people will unknowingly pass through the protections put in place. The correspondents’ association says it sold 2,600 tickets.
“I think it’s important for us to resume some of these activities — and to do so in a way that recognizes the presence of the virus and the risks involved,” said Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineer who also advised the White House on coronavirus strategy. Marr credited the WHCA for adding a requirement that attendees must produce proof of a negative test on Saturday, but urged the association to go further to address airborne transmission of the virus.
“I hope they do something to improve ventilation and filtration in the room,” she said, noting that some guests, like Biden, face high risks due to their age and background. other factors. “There is a non-negligible risk that he will be infected.”
The WHCA dinner has been a rite of spring in Washington since 1921, albeit with occasional interruptions — including the dinner’s cancellation for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Despite its name, journalists constitute a minority of the guests. Attendees of the black tie affair typically include people invited by media organizations, including advertisers, business executives, military officers, senior government officials, and friends of well-connected people. Until former President Donald Trump boycotted the event, Hollywood celebrities and major sports figures often attended, lending a bit of glamor to what has been self-deprecatingly dubbed “the nerd ball.”
This year’s event is a return to form, with Biden and several media and political leaders expected to attend and comedian Trevor Noah set to deliver an after-dinner performance. But it features a new wrinkle, as guests deliberate over the risks of gathering en masse. Some people infected with coronavirus after the Gridiron Club dinner on April 2 had mild cases that quickly resolved, but others experienced symptoms that persisted for days or weeks.
Although the dinner takes place in the cavernous ballroom of the Washington Hilton, many attendees are expected to mingle in more confined spaces throughout the hotel and attend many pre- and post-parties in tight spaces, making it easier to potential spread of the virus.
The Washington Hilton did not respond to specific questions about its current coronavirus protections.
“The safety and security of our guests and team members remains our top priority, and Washington Hilton remains diligent in our commitment to providing a safe and hospitable environment for all who visit our property,” a doorman said. floor in a statement, touting the safety of events held at the hotel during the pandemic and referring questions about Saturday dinner to the Correspondents’ Association.
White House officials also referred questions about security to the Correspondents’ Association, even as senior officials sought to project a return to normalcy after two years of the virus.
“We are at a point in this pandemic … where I think we can come together safely,” Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said on “Fox News Sunday” last week, noting how the vaccines, testing and air filtration can reduce the risk associated with the virus. “I don’t think events like [the correspondents’ dinner] must be cancelled.
Portnoy, the president of the WHCA, pointed out that the association had taken several measures to ensure a safe evening. “We are requiring everyone at dinner to take a coronavirus test on Saturday April 30 and show [the negative result] to get in,” Portnoy said. Participants must also be vaccinated, he said.
But Milton, the University of Maryland expert, said he urged organizers to do more by installing lights that would actively clear the air. “When you gather so many people, you really need to have very efficient air cleaning systems. Ventilation and filtration are not enough,” Milton said.
After dozens of coronavirus infections were linked to the Gridiron Club dinner party three weeks ago, Milton said, he contacted the Correspondents’ Association and arranged a conversation with a supplier, Far UV, who allegedly temporarily installed over 100 appliances at the Washington Hilton. These ranged from small gadgets that look like smoke detectors to portable lights that can be set up in a room.
But WHCA officials said the conversations came too late in their planning and they fear the lights would irritate attendees’ eyes, interfere with servers trying to navigate the ballroom — and even make someone like blue Biden when addressing the crowd.
In an interview, Milton said the technology has proven effective, noting that the White House last month touted the benefits of UV sanitizing light to fight the coronavirus, and that federal regulators have also encouraged its use. He noted that he had no financial relationship with Far UV, or any other company that develops ultraviolet devices.
“We have very good data going back decades,” Milton said, adding that he had been trying to persuade the correspondents’ association of the devices’ value for weeks, although the group continued to decline offers. “The reasoning is not clear to me,” he said.
Milton’s views on using ultraviolet light as a tool against the virus are “credible,” said a Biden administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
PJ Piper, the president of Far UV, declined questions about his company’s conversations with the pen pals association, but said school districts, the Department of Defense and other organizations installed the devices.
Other experts have described WHCA’s fears about the technology as unfounded.
If properly installed, UV sanitizing lamps “can be used safely. They do not penetrate the skin. They do not cause eye damage. They don’t affect photography,” said David Michaels, a professor at George Washington University who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and touted the technology’s potential, along with Milton. “It’s absolutely doable” to get the lights up before Saturday’s gala, Michaels added.
Michaels also rejected the framework that safety during the pandemic only depends on individual steps such as getting vaccinated, wearing masks and getting tested. Instead, he argued, officials need to install more “passive” measures to protect the public, such as better air filters and UV lights to ensure gatherings remain safe for attendees as well as for personnel working at such events.
“We need to do more to protect people before we can put the responsibility on them to protect themselves,” Michaels said.