At least 30 guests who attended Saturday’s Gridiron Club dinner have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.). While contact-tracing investigations have yet to confirm that these infections occurred at the dinner itself, the growing number of cases among attendees suggests the Gridiron was a super-spreader event.
Still, that does not mean large events should be canceled. To the contrary, the Gridiron Club outbreak shows what living with covid-19 looks like.
It should be clear by now that anytime we interact with others indoors and without masks, there is a risk of covid-19 transmission. That risk falls if there are lower levels of infection in the surrounding community and if the space is well ventilated. Conversely, the more people we engage with, the more likely one of them could be carrying the virus and that we could contract it, too.
Event organizers should decide what level of risk they can tolerate and therefore what precautions they need to have in place. The Gridiron event required proof of vaccination, an important safeguard. (A number of Post colleagues are members of the Gridiron Club and attended the event.) That’s because people who are vaccinated are almost three times less likely to be infected compared with those who are unvaccinated.
Requiring proof of same-day rapid testing is another layer of protection that would further reduce risk. The upcoming White House correspondents’ dinner, which traditionally has more than 2,000 attendees, reportedly will ask for both vaccination and same-day testing.
I think it’s great if hosts want to take these precautions, particularly if they know there are many vulnerable people who would not attend the event without them.
I also think it’s acceptable if event organizers choose not to exercise precautions, and instead put the onus on individuals to decide the acceptable risk for their own medical situation. A lot of people will decide that because they are vaccinated and boosted, it’s extremely unlikely that they will become severely ill and that they are fine with the increased possibility of infection.
Others could just as reasonably decide that, given the many unknowns around long covid, they will attend a work party or wedding only if they can wear an N95 or equivalent mask the whole time. If they do this and do not remove the mask to eat or drink, they can keep the risk of contracting the coronavirus low, even if they are surrounded by people who are unmasked, untested or of unknown vaccination status. (Of course, they could also choose not to attend the event at all.)
There are those who would argue it’s irresponsible to hold parties that could turn into super-spreader events. That was true before vaccines were widely available, but it’s no longer realistic. We need to use a different paradigm — one that’s based on individuals being thoughtful about their own risks and the risks they pose to others.
Here’s what this would look like: If you chose to attend a large indoor gathering or are otherwise engaged in higher-risk activities such as frequenting crowded bars, take a test before visiting a nursing home or having dinner with an immunocompromised relative. If you have a newborn or live with someone who is particularly vulnerable, ask others to test before coming to you. To be extra-safe, request that they reduce risky activities for three days, then test just prior to the visit.
If you are older or have medical problems that make you more susceptible to hospitalization from the coronavirus, have a plan for what happens if you get covid-19. Are you eligible for monoclonal antibodies and antiviral pills such as Paxlovid? Where can you access these treatments, including after hours and on weekends?
At this point in the pandemic, we have to accept that infections will keep occurring. During the winter omicron surge, almost half of Americans contracted the coronavirus. The new omicron subvariant, BA.2, is even more contagious than the original. The price to pay to avoid coronavirus infection is extremely high. Some Americans might choose to continue paying that price, but I suspect most won’t.
Accepting that coronavirus infections will be part of our lives doesn’t mean that we are giving up. Rather, it means acknowledging that we finally have the tools to take away most of the coronavirus’s terrifying consequences. Nearly all of us will contract covid-19. Let’s prepare for when we do and resume living our lives in the meantime.