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Politicians are testing positive for COVID-19 while federal pandemic funds dwindle

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some of the most powerful political figures in the nation's capital contracted COVID-19 this week - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser. Many of them tested positive after they attended the Gridiron Club dinner a week ago, an annual event for political and media elite. And it reflects a surge in cases in some parts of the country. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

SIMON: What do we know about this outbreak dinner that's being called a superspreader event?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So not everyone on the high-profile list of positive cases were at the dinner, but at least 50 people who attended did test positive afterwards. Now, guests had to show proof of vaccination, but attendees did not uniformly wear masks, and there were no negative test requirements. And this is in the context of cases, as you say, rising here in D.C. And the dominant variant in the U.S. right now, BA.2, is extremely contagious. And there were about 700 people indoors at this event, and that's still risky.

SIMON: Hmm. Of course, President Biden works closely with many of those people who did get infected. He's 79 years of age. He has had a second booster. What does the White House say about the president's risk of exposure?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, in fact, the president usually attends the annual dinner, but this year, President Biden did not. He sent a video message instead. I asked Natalie Quillian, the outgoing deputy coordinator for the White House COVID-19 response team, about the president's risk. And here's what she said.

NATALIE QUILLIAN: Is it possible that he, like many Americans, could get COVID? It is possible. But also, like many Americans, you know, we believe in - he can move forward safely with his routines as president of the United States.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She said the president has strong protocols and his vaccine doses protecting him.

SIMON: Selena, this week, a federal appeals court upheld the vaccine mandate for federal employees that had been blocked for months. What does this mean for workers?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, this was a panel in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the judges said that the lower court judge who had blocked it didn't have jurisdiction. They reasoned that if a federal worker has a problem with the vaccine rule, they need to use an internal review process, not sue in federal court. Erin Fuse Brown teaches law at Georgia State University. She told me, in practical terms, the injunction's gone.

ERIN FUSE BROWN: And so in theory, yes, the federal government as an employer could start enforcing the vaccine mandate.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But the people who might be affected here are only a very small portion of the workforce, maybe, like, 3% who both are unvaccinated and do not have an exemption. And it's not clear if the federal government is going to jump in and start enforcing this. The White House, as Quillian told me, they're just working through next steps at this point.

SIMON: Mmm. Finally, congress left for spring recess without passing another package of COVID spending. This one would have been worth $10 billion. What happens now?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, already uninsured people can no longer get free vaccines or tests or treatments across the country. The administration warns more cuts are coming if Congress can't get more funding approved soon. Quillian told me the White House wants even more, 22.5 billion. And she pointed to a study from Yale and the Commonwealth Fund, out yesterday, that assessed the value of the vaccination campaign so far.

QUILLIAN: That said, we've avoided almost 900 billion in health care costs and saved 2 million lives. I think an investment of $22 billion to save even more lives and prevent even more costs to our economy and our health care system is well worth it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She said she hopes lawmakers act quickly on this when they get back to Washington on April 25.

SIMON: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks very much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.