At least 72 of the over 600 people who attended the mostly maskless Gridiron dinner—an exclusive annual event frequented by high-profile Washington, DC, elites—have since tested positive for COVID-19. The dinner took place on April 2.
The growing tally may herald a nationwide rise in infections from the BA.2 omicron subvariant amid relaxed health measures. BA.2 is now the dominant variant circulating in the US and is more transmissible than the initial ultra-transmissible omicron subvariant, BA.1.
So far, over 20 states and Washington, DC, are reporting upticks in cases over the past two weeks, and nearly ten states are seeing an increase in hospitalizations, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Over half of the country’s wastewater sites monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 levels have also detected rises in the past two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The monitoring is intended to act as an early warning signal for case surges.
Still, the undercount of COVID-19 cases is expected to be more severe now than ever during the pandemic. Testing generally misses a large chunk of infections. But testing for COVID-19 has fallen sharply since the BA.1 surge in January, which saw over 2 million tests per day at its peak. Average daily testing is now down to less than 600,000 per day and is on a downward trajectory, according to CDC data. Many people have opted to use at-home COVID-19 tests instead, the results of which are often not reported to health departments. Moreover, people who catch the virus and experience only mild or asymptomatic cases—particularly those who are vaccinated and boosted—may not get tested at all.
Those realities were at play in DC’s Gridiron dinner outbreak over the past week. While guests were required to be vaccinated, they were not required to test negative before attending. Among those who have since tested positive, many have reported mild or symptomless cases. Some asymptomatic people only tested because they learned of other cases at the event. In the meantime, they had attended news conferences and other events—often with other high-ranking officials—maskless.
Already, the growing tally includes three Cabinet members, several lawmakers, high-profile aides, and journalists. Attorney General Merrick Garland tested positive after going to the event, but not before he attended a news conference with FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added her name to the list of infected attendees of the white-tie-and-gown event. She joins Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.), and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), among other members of Congress. New York Mayor Eric Adams, who attended, announced a positive test Sunday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who did not attend the Gridiron dinner—announced that she, too, was infected last week, highlighting the wider spread of the virus among Washington’s upper echelon. Pelosi and others announced their positive test results after spending time with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
On Sunday, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci—who attended the Gridiron dinner—spoke of the risk to the president on ABC’s This Week. “Yes, he is mingling,” Fauci said of the president. “But remember, he’s fully vaccinated. He’s doubly boosted, and most of the time, people who get anywhere near him need to be tested. So we feel the protocol is a reasonable protocol.”