A fight over coronavirus safety at journalists’ gala event

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More than 2,000 journalists, celebrities and politicians, including President Biden, are set to descend on the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this weekend in what is shaping up to be a major test of whether large gatherings can be safely held at this stage of the pandemic.

Organizers say they are committed to holding an event that significantly reduces the risk of coronavirus infections, pointing to vaccine and testing requirements that were strengthened after a dinner hosted by Washington’s Gridiron Club this month was linked to at least 85 infections that sickened Cabinet members, reporters and other guests.

Yet some White House officials and experts worry that those measures are insufficient and that this weekend’s events may become another high-profile superspreader event, said three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. Behind the scenes, one prominent coronavirus expert is scrapping with party organizers hesitant to install devices that disinfect the air using ultraviolet light because of concerns the devices might interfere with the program.

Don Milton, a University of Maryland environmental scientist who has advised the White House and others on airborne transmission, said his offer to have a company install the devices at no charge was rebuffed by both the correspondents’ association and the Washington Hilton, which is hosting the event. “I enlisted a team of scientists and germicidal UV lighting companies to provide, as a demonstration project at no cost, a temporary installation to help protect the White House correspondents’ dinner,” Milton said. “Unfortunately, it has not worked out.”

In an interview, Steve Portnoy, a CBS News reporter who serves as the WHCA’s president, said the association had put safety protocols in place and Milton’s offer came too late.

“We’re interested in learning more about this technology,” Portnoy said. “We just aren’t in a position, with less than a week to go, to more fully understand the benefits or potential risks of what appears to be an experimental technology.”

The correspondents’ dinner arrives after weeks of debate over whether such events are still too risky as fast-spreading subvariants of omicron, such as BA. 2, circle the globe — or if risking coronavirus is just one more hazard of normal life in 2022, given the expanding number of treatments to keep the virus from progressing to severe disease in most people.

The Gridiron Club outbreak “shows what living with covid-19 looks like,” Leana S. Wen, a Washington Post contributor, wrote this month, saying that cases are inevitable and cheering that party’s return. “Nearly all of us will contract covid-19. Let’s prepare for when we do and resume living our lives in the meantime.”

But at least some individuals are choosing to bow out. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, canceled his plans to attend the dinner, citing his personal risks, CNN first reported late Tuesday night. In an interview on Wednesday, the 81-year-old doctor said that it is his “personal choice” not to attend the event, even as he maintained the United States was moving past the “full-blown pandemic” phase of the virus.

As of Wednesday, the White House said that Biden, 79, planned to be there to show his support of the media but would skip the dinner portion of the evening and might take precautions like wearing a mask at times.

The BA.2 “stealth” omicron variant is expected to soon become the dominant strain. Here is what you need to know about a possible new wave of infections. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Many coronavirus experts say that new infections linked to the dinner and the accompanying parties are inevitable, noting that local cases have climbed, key officials such as Vice President Harris tested positive for coronavirus this week and the sheer number of attendees means that some infected people will unknowingly slip through the protections put in place. The correspondents’ association says it has sold 2,600 tickets.

“I think it is important for us to return to some of these activities — and to do it in a way that acknowledges the presence of the virus and the risks involved,” said Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineer who has also advised the White House on coronavirus strategy. Marr credited the WHCA for adding a requirement that attendees must produce evidence of a negative test on Saturday but urged the association to go further to address airborne transmission of the virus.

“I hope they’re doing something to improve ventilation and filtration in the venue,” she said, noting that some guests, such as Biden, face elevated risks because of their age and other factors. “There’s a non-negligible risk that he could become infected.”

The WHCA dinner has been a rite of spring in Washington since 1921, albeit with occasional interruptions — most notably the cancellation of the dinner over the past two years because of the pandemic.

Despite its name, journalists make up a minority of the guests. Attendees at the black-tie affair typically include people invited by media organizations, including advertisers, business executives, military officers, high-ranking government officials and friends of the well connected. Until former president Donald Trump boycotted the event, Hollywood celebrities and major sports figures often attended, lending some glamour to what has been self-deprecatingly nicknamed “the nerd prom.”

This year’s event is a return to form, with Biden and multiple media and political leaders slated to attend and comedian Trevor Noah set to deliver a post-dinner performance. But it features a new wrinkle, as invitees deliberate 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 lingered for days or weeks.

Although the dinner will take place in the Washington Hilton’s cavernous ballroom, many attendees are expected to mingle in more confined spaces throughout the hotel, and attend numerous pre- and post-parties in close quarters, facilitating potential virus spread.

The Washington Hilton did not respond to specific questions about its current protections against coronavirus.

“The safety and security of our guests and team members remains our highest priority, and Washington Hilton remains diligent in our commitment to provide a safe, hospitable environment for all who visit our property,” a spokesperson said in a statement, touting the safety of events held at the hotel during the pandemic and referring questions about Saturday’s dinner to the correspondents’ association.

White House officials also referred questions about safety to the correspondents association, even as top officials sought to project a return to normalcy after two virus-ridden years.

“We are at a point in this pandemic … where I think we can gather safely,” Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said on “Fox News Sunday” last week, noting how vaccines, testing and air filtration can reduce the risks associated with the virus. “I don’t think events like [the correspondents’ dinner] need to be canceled.”

Portnoy, the WHCA’s president, stressed that the association had taken multiple steps to ensure a safe evening. “We are requiring that every person at the dinner takes a coronavirus test on Saturday, April 30, and shows [the negative result] to enter,” Portnoy said. Attendees also are required to be vaccinated, he said.

But Milton, the University of Maryland expert, said he had urged organizers to do more by installing lights that would actively clean the air. “When you gather that many people together, you’ve really got to have highly effective air sanitation systems. Just ventilation and filtration aren’t enough,” Milton said.

After dozens of coronavirus infections were linked to the Gridiron Club dinner three weeks ago, Milton said, he had reached out to the correspondents’ association and arranged a conversation with a vendor, Far UV, that would have temporarily set up more than 100 devices at the Washington Hilton. Those ranged from small gadgets that resemble smoke detectors to portable lamps that can be set up around a room.

But WHCA officials said the conversations came too late in their planning, and that they feared the lights might irritate the eyes of attendees, interfere with servers trying to navigate the ballroom — and even make someone like Biden look blue when he addressed the crowd.

In an interview, Milton said the technology had been proved effective, noting the White House last month touted the benefits of UV disinfecting light to fight the coronavirus, and federal regulators have similarly encouraged its use. He noted that he had no financial relationship with Far UV, or any other company that develops the ultraviolet devices.

“We’ve got really good data going back many decades,” Milton said, adding that he had tried to persuade the correspondents’ association about the devices’ value for weeks, although the group continued to decline the 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 correspondents’ association but said that school districts, the Department of Defense and other organizations had installed the devices.

Other experts described the WHCA’s fears about the technology as groundless.

If installed correctly, UV disinfecting lights “can be used safely. They do not penetrate the skin. They don’t cause eye damage. They don’t affect photography,” said David Michaels, a George Washington University professor who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has touted the technology’s potential, along with Milton. “It’s absolutely feasible” to install the lights before Saturday’s gala, Michaels added.

Michaels also rejected the framework that safety during the pandemic hinges only 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 that gatherings remain safe for attendees as well as the staff who work such events.

“We need to do more to protect people before we can push the onus on them to protect themselves,” Michaels said.