WASHINGTON — A flurry of high-profile coronavirus cases in the nation’s capital — including in people who have been around President Joe Biden — has raised new questions about the trajectory of the 2-year-old pandemic, even as the White House has signaled confidence in the country’s ability to resume normal activities.
On Thursday, Biden canceled face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Micheál Martin of Ireland after Martin received a positive result from a coronavirus test during a gala event Wednesday night that both men attended.
In the past week, Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, tested positive for the virus, as did former President Barack Obama. At least nine House Democrats tested positive this week after a party retreat in Philadelphia and late-night voting at the Capitol.
White House officials said Biden, 79, had not been in close contact with anyone who tested positive and did not appear worried about his safety. They said the administration was monitoring a highly transmissible subvariant known as BA.2, which is spreading rapidly in parts of China and Europe, but that there appeared to be little reason to think there would be a U-turn back to social distancing and universal mask-wearing in the United States.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the nation is in a better position to combat the new variant because of the number of people who have been vaccinated and the quality of the vaccines used.
“It has been circulating here for some time,” Psaki said of BA.2. She noted that China had not used mRNA vaccines like the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna, calling it “an important component” of why caseloads are so high there.
But the recent cases in Washington, and the spread of yet another variant around the world, highlight a challenge for Biden and his team: how to embrace the country’s desire to move on while being careful not to declare victory over a virus that is still making people sick and killing more than 1,000 Americans each day.
“Just because COVID isn’t disrupting some of our lives in certain communities as much as it was a few weeks ago, it doesn’t mean it’s gone,” Psaki said. “It’s not gone. And I think this variant is an example of that.”
The tension over how to approach this juncture of the pandemic was evident in a statement announcing the departure of the president’s coronavirus response coordinator Thursday.
Biden said the United States had entered “a new moment” in the fight against the virus and acknowledged the pleasure that many people were feeling as they emerged from more than two years of fear and anxiety.
“Americans are safely moving back to more normal routines, using the effective new tools we have to enable us to reduce severe COVID cases and make workplaces and schools safer,” Biden said.
But he quickly added, “Our work in combating COVID is far from done.”
That work includes persuading lawmakers in both parties to approve billions of dollars to continue fighting the virus. Administration officials say the money would be used to replenish supplies of vaccine, masks and new viral drugs used to treat COVID.
Jeff Zients, the departing coronavirus response coordinator, insisted this week that the additional money for COVID “is not nice to have; this is need to have.” But a bipartisan agreement between lawmakers and the White House to repurpose money that had already been approved for states fell apart when some Democratic lawmakers refused to go along.
The difficulty of passing a new COVID spending package underscores how much the national attitude has changed since the pandemic began. A year ago, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan included more than $178 billion for vaccinations and other COVID-related health care expenditures. Now, Biden is struggling to make the case for much less.
At the White House Thursday, Psaki said Biden tested negative for the virus Sunday and continues to be tested at least once a week but had not done so since the disclosure of the Irish prime minister’s test.
Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, confirmed Martin’s positive test early Thursday.
Biden, who has been vaccinated and received a booster shot in late September, was scheduled to meet with Martin Thursday morning at the White House, followed by a luncheon at the Capitol and a shamrock presentation at the White House.
Instead, the leaders met virtually, with Biden seated near a bowl of shamrocks on a table and a television monitor showing Martin. The president said he was “deeply sorry for the inconvenience” of the virtual format.
White House officials said that during Wednesday night’s gala, Biden and Martin were not in close contact, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as being within 6 feet of someone for at least 15 minutes.
Mulhall said on Twitter that he had accepted a leadership award for Martin Wednesday at the gala for the Ireland Funds in Washington, an event that Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also attended.
“I filled in for the Taoiseach after he tested positive for #Covid19,” he wrote, using the Irish word for the country’s leader. “I wish the Taoiseach well for his recovery.”
Irish journalists traveling with Martin’s delegation reported that he had attended the early part of the gala, and photos from the event appeared to show him seated next to Pelosi.
The speaker’s office confirmed that Pelosi, who is vaccinated and boosted, received a negative PCR test result Thursday morning and would continue to test regularly and follow CDC guidelines, although it was not clear which ones. It was also unclear whether the Office of the Attending Physician considered Pelosi, 81, to be a close contact of Martin.
Pelosi appeared at her weekly news conference Thursday, saying that she was tested nearly every day. Martin remained masked until food was served, she said, and was pulled aside during the appetizer course about his positive test.
“We’re very, very sad that on St. Patrick’s Day, the taoiseach has this diagnosis,” she said at her indoor news conference, where she removed her mask to speak and take questions.
The scheduled lunch — the Friends of Ireland Luncheon on Capitol Hill — proceeded Thursday without Martin. Pelosi addressed the room, where lawmakers sat at round tables, while introducing Biden, who sat on a stool a few feet away. Neither wore a mask, and there were few face coverings in the room.
“America has been blessed by Irish children, and one of those Irish children is now the president of the United States,” Pelosi said, just before they shook hands and Biden took the lectern. He did not stay for lunch.
In a tradition going back to 1952, Irish ambassadors or political leaders present the U.S. president with a bowl of shamrocks on or around St. Patrick’s Day, usually in the White House. The tradition is valued in Ireland and by many Irish Americans as a sign of the close ties between the two countries.
Martin may now never visit the Oval Office in his official capacity: His first scheduled visit last year was canceled because of the pandemic and, as part of a coalition deal with two other Irish political parties, he is expected to hand over the prime ministership before next March.
On Wednesday, Claire Cronin, U.S. ambassador to Ireland, said on Twitter that she canceled her plans to join Martin on his trip to Washington because she had tested positive for the coronavirus.