Fauci, an infectious disease expert and chief medical adviser to Biden, did not directly criticize Biden or other officials, and people on the off-the-record call said his mention of the correspondents’ dinner was part of a wider call for the health experts to emphasize that the fight against the pandemic is still ongoing.
But Fauci’s criticism stood out as it seemed to put him at odds with the more relaxed stance towards the dinner taken by the White House and Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, who attended the dinner and was also present. during the Thursday call.
“Looking back, I wonder what was going through Ashish’s mind at that time,” one of the callers told POLITICO.
Jha did not respond to Fauci’s remarks during the meeting, the people on the call said. On Friday, a White House spokesperson pointed to Jha’s comments during an April 17 television interview that big events like the Correspondents’ Dinner can go ahead safely.
“I don’t think events like this should be canceled,” Jha told Fox News. “I think if people put good safeguards in place they can make it considerably safer, make sure people are vaccinated, make sure you have tests, improve ventilation. These are strategies that we have learned over the past two years.
Jha reiterated that belief during a Friday appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, thanking the White House Correspondents’ Association for doing “the things that we know will make the event safer.”
A Fauci spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But a person familiar with his remarks pointed out that Fauci was not directly weighing in on the wisdom of holding the annual press corps dinner – and the event was not the focus of Thursday’s briefing. Rather, his comments reflected a broader concern that the nation must continue to fight Covid and protect the vulnerable.
The Biden administration has held periodic off-the-record calls with a group of leading health experts and commentators to provide updates and solicit feedback on its Covid response. Thursday afternoon’s call initially focused on the need for additional Covid funding, although the discussion also touched on equity and public messaging issues.
Fauci, who is 81, had previously opted out of the event out of concern for his own personal Covid risk. Still, Biden and first lady Jill Biden — both in their 60s — attended, as did many other top administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. . White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was also present and was one of the few to wear a mask while there.
The White House in the days leading up to the dinner downplayed concerns about attending a gathering of 2,500 people during the pandemic, emphasizing that everyone makes a personal decision and stressing the availability of vaccines and treatments needed to prevent disease. serious.
Since then, several attendees have tested positive, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, although it is unclear whether they were infected at dinner or at the various parties held throughout the weekend.
The White House Correspondents Association required all attendees to be vaccinated and show proof of a negative test. In a statement, WHCA President Steven Portnoy told POLITICO that the organization “has implemented protocols that go beyond any guidelines or regulations issued by the [Centers for Disease Control] or the DC Health Department.
Yet the decision to host the dinner for the first time since the pandemic hit the US is coming under increasing scrutiny as Covid cases rise nationwide again . Average daily new infections have doubled since early April, and CDC data shows hospitalizations are also increasing. While few expect another winter-like spike, health experts say cases will likely continue to rise as more Omicron subvariants spread.
This Covid rebound has also complicated the pandemic message for a White House eager to move beyond the public health crisis and into an era more focused on disease management. Biden’s top health officials, including Jha, have sought to ride the difficult dual message that Covid no longer poses a serious threat to most Americans – but that the nation must take precautions to prevent a return of the virus. .
Days before the Correspondents’ Dinner, Fauci told PBS NewsHour that the country was ‘out of the pandemic phase’ – only to clarify later that while the US was in better shape, it was not completely out. of the pandemic.
People on Thursday’s call described Fauci taking an even more urgent tone, at one point saying those who returned to their normal lives with no concern for vulnerable populations were “irresponsible.”