A trio of positive COVID-19 tests has complicated the already confusing picture of the White House's response to the virus.
The Biden administration is belatedly embracing the end of virus-related restrictions and mandates while also stressing the urgent need for funding to fight the disease, a dichotomy underlined by the positive tests of Vice President Kamala Harris's husband Doug Emhoff, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, and visiting Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin within days of each other.
The positive cases caused scheduling, logistical, and public relations challenges for the White House, though all indications are that the trio suffered only mild symptoms.
Emhoff tested positive March 15, scrambling a planned Women's History Month celebration that Harris skipped due to what aides described as "an abundance of caution." Martin abruptly left a gala attended by Biden upon learning of a positive result the following day, and he then appeared remotely for a St. Patrick's Day event with the president.
Psaki missed Biden's trip to Europe after testing positive Tuesday, with deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre filling in. She has continued working from Washington and issued statements to the press throughout the week.
All appear to remain in good health, with Emhoff sharing his NCAA basketball tournament bracket on Twitter and Martin returning to action after receiving two subsequent negative tests.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain took to Twitter to defend against criticisms that Biden was trying and failing to turn the page from the disease.
“We are not 'turning the page' on COVID," he wrote. "We are keeping businesses and schools open — and reducing hospital & ICU cases — by making vaccines, boosters, treatments and tests widely available. And we will continue to do so as long as Congress funds this work.”
The cases emerged against a broader COVID-19 funding fight. The White House and congressional Democrats are seeking $15 billion in new dollars to pay for testing, vaccines, treatments, and research and development. That notion enjoys bipartisan support.
"Congress should provide the necessary funding to prevent disruptions to the country’s COVID response," wrote Anand Parekh, the chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "As cases begin to rise abroad, it is imperative that we are prepared with adequate testing, vaccinations, and treatments to protect the health of the American people and avoid further disruptions to people’s daily lives.”
While Republicans generally agree with the need, they argue the money can be had through other sources, such as diverting previously approved dollars to states that are flush with cash.
"If this money was as crucially needed as the White House claims, why are there countless examples of governments across the nation misusing pandemic relief money for pet projects?" said Heritage Action Vice President Garrett Bess. "From buying a ski area in Iowa to building a high-end hotel in Florida to renovating a minor league baseball field in New York, it’s clear there is nothing 'emergency' about these funds, and Republicans are right to stand their ground.”
A key question is whether the West Wing's positive cases underscore the need for more resources or the need to further relax restrictions that disrupt daily life. With most mandates now lifted, a group of major airline company executives is urging the Biden administration to do away with federal pre-departure testing requirements and mask mandates on aircraft.
Psaki quarantined for 10 days following a positive COVID-19 test in October and said she would quarantine for five days this time, the change owing to revised guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also said Biden was not considered a close contact because she had two "socially distanced" meetings with him the day before.
During his trip, Biden was not required to test before entering Belgium, but he will need to test prior to leaving Poland to return to the United States. The White House's procedures have failed to keep the virus from circulating within the administration, though Biden himself has yet to test positive.
"Because of our commitment to transparency, we provide updates when any White House official tests positive for COVID-19 and with White House Medical Unit deems them as having had close contact with the president, vice president, first lady, or second gentleman," Jean-Pierre said en route to Brussels. "That will be up to the White House Medical Unit based on the criteria of the CDC. You know, Jen, for example, shared her positive case yesterday, as she did in October, out of an abundance of transparency."