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Coronavirus penetrates W.H. inner circle with alarming frequency – even as U.S. lets down guard

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Americans are ditching masks and trying to move on from COVID-19, but the virus is piercing the inner circle of the White House and its line of succession with alarming frequency.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin tested positive for the virus late Wednesday and had to leave an event at the National Building Museum attended by President Biden, 79, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, at 81, is second in line to the presidency.

Vaccines and boosters should provide high protection against severe disease or death, but seniors are still at a far higher risk of bad outcomes from the virus than young people.

Mrs. Pelosi was photographed sitting and speaking to Mr. Martin without a mask, and the White House said Mr. Biden would not be deemed a “close contact” of the prime minister, also known as the Taoiseach, based on Wednesday’s events.

Mr. Martin is speaking to Mr. Biden virtually instead of meeting in person at the White House, and Mrs. Pelosi plans to proceed with a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon on Capitol Hill, only without the prime minister.

“In consultation with the Office of Attending Physician, the speaker will continue regular testing and follow CDC guidance. The Friends of Ireland Lunch today will proceed but without the participation of the Taoiseach,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.

The potential exposure marks the latest brush with the virus in the upper echelons of Washington. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive for the virus Tuesday, raising concerns about a potential chain of exposure through his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, who is first in line to become the leader of the free world.

Ms. Harris, 57, is feeling fine, but she attended a bill signing Tuesday with Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is the Senate pro tempore and third in line to the presidency. He is 81.

The exposures come at an awkward time for the White House, which followed new guidance for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in deciding to drop mandatory mask-wearing on campus.

Mr. Biden and society at large are trying to pivot from the pandemic phase of the COVID-19 crisis to a period in which the virus is managed like other public health threats.

Daily U.S. case counts of around 30,000 are the lowest since the pre-delta period last summer, though the latest round of positives shows the virus hasn’t disappeared and will spur hand-wringing in Washington.

Lawmakers in Congress have shed masks, too, and gathered en masse for a midweek address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who pleaded for help in repelling Russian invaders.

“We rarely consult the dim corners of Article I of the Constitution or the Presidential Succession Act but perhaps we should dust them off. Mass gatherings such as the Zelenskyy speech to Congress could be mass-spreader events,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University. “We have dropped our guard and the older individuals including the president and those in the line of succession need to be cautious. A line of succession populated by so many octogenarians is problematic.”

Mr. Biden has avoided catching the virus so far but former President Donald Trump battled COVID-19 in October 2020, just a month before the presidential election.

Aged 74 at the time, Mr. Trump’s illness forced him to spend time at Walter Reed Military Medical Center so he could receive groundbreaking treatments and recover.

The former White House was often criticized as too lax with its COVID-19 protocols and vulnerable to the spread of the virus. A September 2020 event hailing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was panned as a super-spreader event.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.


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