The COVID wave hits just as health protocols wane

(The Hill) – A growing list of top Democrats is going down with COVID-19 just as President Biden and party leaders move to roll back public health precautions designed to combat the highly contagious virus.

The rash of positive cases — which has affected both members of Congress and senior administration figures — isn’t so much a health concern for the policymakers involved, who all say they’re vaccinated, beefed up and have no symptoms that may require hospitalization.

But the untimely surge has created new political headaches for Democratic leaders as they seek to return the country to something close to normalcy – a delicate dance amid a tough election year when both houses are up for grabs; Republicans are calling for an end to what they see as onerous health protocols; and COVID fatigue has become 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.); Representatives Adam Schiff (D-California) 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, including some near Biden, have put the White House on the defensive when it comes to the president’s busy public agenda amid the surge.

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

The outbreak highlights the dilemma facing Democratic leaders, in the White House and on Capitol Hill, as they position themselves to relax the public health protocols they have long championed while simultaneously preparing for another potential peak of 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 address to Congress last month, eliminated mask mandates that had been in place for the House floor for two years. Democratic leaders are also set to reopen the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC) to public tours, recently returning dining tables to the CVC cafeteria after months of it being used as a makeshift COVID testing site.

And health officials in the Biden administration are considering the elimination of immigration restrictions at the southern border, known as Title 42, which were passed two years ago by former President Trump in name of the fight against the spread of the virus – a repeal that sparked an outcry from Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats.

Yet while the number of cases across the country has fallen slightly over the past two weeks – and deaths and hospitalizations have fallen significantly over the same period, according to a count kept by The New York Times – the Prospects are mixed on the state level with the arrival of a recent subvariant of omicron, which has led to an increase in cases in about half of the country. It’s a trend that hasn’t been overlooked by Democratic leaders in Washington, who are watching these numbers carefully.

“This pandemic is not over,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) warned earlier in the week, defending Democrats’ push for more federal pandemic relief. “We still have people dying, we still have people getting sick. … And we can’t take our eyes off the ball making sure we keep helping.

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

Pelosi, 82, had been to the White House twice in the past week, including a health care event on Tuesday when the president was seen hugging the president. On Friday, the White House acknowledged that Biden, 79, was at risk of contracting the virus, but stressed that he was vaccinated and had recently received his second booster shot.

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

PSAKI defended Biden’s decision to hold an event earlier in the day in honor of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic confirmation to the Supreme Court, pointing out that it was held outdoors.

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

The wave comes as Democratic leaders push for billions of dollars in new spending on testing, vaccinations and other COVID-fighting programs. The bill hit a wall in the Senate this week after Republicans balked at the administration’s plan to eliminate Title 42 immigration restrictions, and House GOP leaders have previously voiced their own concerns. to the idea of ​​providing a new round of federal aid.

“The best way right now to help families and small businesses is to open up the whole economy, end all terms,” ​​Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the second Republican in bedroom.

Republicans, however, have their own issues with COVID messaging. While most party members have downplayed the threat of the virus since it arrived — and sharply criticized Democrats’ health protocols as an assault on individual liberties — they are now demanding that 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 face during COVID.”

Democrats were quick to defend Biden, accusing Republicans of downplaying the health threat from COVID — barring a policy that would ban immigrants seeking legal asylum.

“Title 42 has been inserted [by] former president as a workhorse for border security,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (California), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said this week. “It was covered up in a discussion of the pandemic, but the pandemic has changed.”

Alex Gangitano and Morgan Chalfant contributed.

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