Anthony Fauci this week privately criticized the decision to hold the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, singling it out as a troubling sign that many Americans no longer view Covid as a serious threat, four people who heard his remarks told POLITICO.
Speaking on a call with public health experts on Thursday afternoon, Fauci expressed frustration with the growing perception that the pandemic is effectively over. He said he feared people are losing sight of the need to continue protecting the nation’s most vulnerable.
He then pointed to the April 30 WHCA event — which was attended by President Joe Biden and dozens of other administration officials — as an example. The dinner featured thousands of guests and was held inside a Washington Hilton ballroom. It was bookended by similarly well-attended parties and gatherings. Fauci questioned why so many people felt comfortable gathering maskless indoors amid a fresh surge in Covid cases.
Fauci, a top infectious disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser, did not directly criticize Biden or other officials, and the people on the off-the-record call said his mention of the correspondents’ dinner came as part of a wider appeal for the health experts to emphasize that the pandemic fight is still ongoing.
But Fauci’s critique stood out because it appeared to put him at odds with the more relaxed stance toward the dinner taken by the White House and Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, who attended the dinner and was also present on the Thursday call.
“Looking back on it, I’m wondering what the hell was going through Ashish’s mind at that point,” one of the people on the call 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 large events like the correspondents’ dinner can be held safely.
“I don’t think events like that need to be canceled,” Jha told Fox News. “I think if people put in good safeguards, they can make it substantially safer, make sure people are vaccinated, make sure you have testing, improve ventilation. Those are strategies we have learned over the last two years.”
Jha reiterated that belief during a Friday appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, crediting the White House Correspondents’ Association for doing “the things that we know make the event safer.”
A spokesperson for Fauci did not respond to a request for comment. But a person familiar with his remarks stressed that Fauci wasn’t directly weighing in on the wisdom of holding the annual press corps dinner — and that the event was not the focus of the Thursday briefing. Rather, his comments reflected a broader concern that the nation needs to keep fighting Covid and protecting the vulnerable.
The Biden administration has held periodic off-the-record calls with a group of prominent health experts and commentators to provide updates and solicit feedback on its Covid response. Thursday afternoon’s call focused initially on the need for more Covid funding, though the discussion also touched on equity and public messaging concerns.
Fauci, who is 81, had previously opted not to attend the event out of concern for his own personal Covid risk. Yet Biden and first lady Jill Biden — who are both in their 70s — did go for part of it, as did many other senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. White House chief of staff Ron Klain attended too, and was one of the few who wore a mask while there.
The White House in the days leading up to the dinner downplayed concerns about attending a 2,500-person gathering during the pandemic, emphasizing that everyone was making a personal decision and stressing the availability of vaccines and treatments necessary to prevent severe disease.
Since then, several attendees have tested positive, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, though it’s unclear whether they were infected at the dinner or 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 “implemented protocols that went beyond any guidance or regulation issued by the [Centers for Disease Control] or the D.C. Health Department.”
Still, the decision to hold the dinner for the first time since the pandemic hit the U.S. has come under increasing scrutiny as Covid cases climb nationally once again. Average daily new infections have doubled since the beginning of April, and CDC data shows hospitalizations are now rising as well. Though few expect another spike on par with the winter’s surge, health experts believe cases are likely to continue increasing as more Omicron subvariants spread.
That Covid rebound has also complicated the pandemic messaging for a White House eager to move past the public health crisis and toward an era focused more on managing the disease. Top Biden health officials, including Jha, have sought to straddle the difficult dual message that Covid no longer poses a severe threat to most Americans — but that the nation must keep up precautions to prevent a comeback of the virus.
Days prior to the correspondents’ dinner, Fauci declared on PBS NewsHour that the country was “out of the pandemic phase” — only to later clarify that, while the U.S. was in better shape, it wasn’t out of the pandemic altogether.
People on the Thursday call described Fauci taking an even more urgent tone, venting at one point that those who were returning to their normal lives without concern for vulnerable populations were “irresponsible.”