The Washington news media’s big annual dinner last Saturday appears to be connected to an outbreak of coronavirus infections, validating concerns that the virus might spread among guests at the event attended by President Biden.
Among those testing positive: ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl, ABC News President Kim Godwin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The State Department said Blinken, who is vaccinated, is experiencing mild symptoms and quarantining at home.
During the event, Karl sat next to reality-show starlet Kim Kardashian and her boyfriend, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson. Karl also shook hands with Biden, who limited his time in the subterranean ballroom to about an hour. Karl declined to comment.
Employees of CNN, NBC News, CBS News, Politico, Voice of America, Puck News and The Washington Post also tested positive, according to social media posts, texts, emails and news accounts. Among the journalists who’ve publicly acknowledged positive tests is Jada Yuan, who covered the dinner for The Post.
Several of those who reported positive tests said they were aware of the risks of attending the dinner — while far below recent peaks, the national caseload has lately been trending up again — but did not regret their decision to go.
“I believe I’m one of just a handful of known positive tests among the 2,600 attendees. Percentage-wise that is small — the reverse of winning the lottery,” said Steve Herman, VOA’s chief national correspondent. “WHCA had an excellent protocol in place for attendees with proof of vaccines and a same-day negative test.” Herman said he had “no regrets” about attending the dinner.
There are no reports of hospitalizations among those affected, a likely result of widespread vaccinations among people who attended.
One person who attended 10 parties related to the dinner between Thursday night and Sunday morning but did not go to Saturday night’s main event said they tested positive earlier this week and have strep-like symptoms, including a bad cough.
“I understood that there was a risk and I knew it was on me to evaluate it,” said this person, who asked not to be named to protect privacy. “In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I still would have gone.”
A third person, who also requested anonymity, said she knew the risks but that “I feel like it was worth” attending. She said she had a sore throat for a day “and that’s it.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association, which organized the annual dinner at the Washington Hilton, doesn’t keep a roster of guests and has no official tally of the number of positive tests. The association sells tables to news organizations, which then distribute invitations to employees, their spouses, advertisers and others.
The early indication, however, is that the dinner attended by 2,600 people may well be what the evening’s performer, comedian Trevor Noah, joked would be “the world’s most distinguished superspreader event.” During his performance Saturday, he mock-lectured the mostly maskless crowd, “Did none of you learn anything from the Gridiron Dinner?” — referring to another elite Washington dinner, held April 3, after which 85 of 630 attendees tested positive.
WHCA President Steven Portnoy of CBS said the group required every guest to submit a negative coronavirus test along with vaccination records. In addition, anyone who was likely to come in contact with the president, such as Karl, took a “medically proctored” test beforehand.
“We worked hard to publicize our protocols and to encourage those eligible to get booster shots in the weeks leading up to the dinner,” Portnoy said in a statement. “Our event implemented protocols that went beyond every guidance or regulation issued by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the D.C. Health Department.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Portnoy said in an interview that he was aware of “a small number of cases, in the single digits.”
But that number was likely to grow as people experienced symptoms and took tests. Researchers recommend that a vaccinated person wait three to five days after a suspected exposure to take a test, as earlier testing tends to be less accurate. Positive results can turn up almost a week after an exposure.
The correspondents dinner was preceded and followed by crowded parties sponsored by media organizations. These were held in restaurants, embassies, offices and other event spaces around Washington. It is possible that some guests at the dinner already were carrying infections that did not register on the same-day tests they took.
The nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, Anthony S. Fauci, initially planned to attend the dinner but opted against it several days earlier, citing concerns about his personal health risk.
Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.