White House Press Briefings: “Is covering the White House shoulder-to-shoulder worth COVID?”

From a story on politico.com by Max Tani, Tina Sfondeles, and Alex Thompson headlined “Is covering Psaki live worth Covid?”:

As members of the White House press corps sat down in the briefing room packed shoulder-to-shoulder on Monday, one journalist sarcastically addressed what other attendees were clearly thinking: “At least we’re all socially distanced.”

The Omicron variant ripping through Washington D.C. has come to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., too. And it’s left much of the White House press corps — crammed tightly into the small confines of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room — asking questions like: Is it worth getting infected with Covid-19 to lob Jen Psaki a question that she will likely respond to with prepared talking points? Can my KN95 mask stand up to the spittle coming from the television broadcasters trying to make a viral moment?

On Tuesday, the White House Correspondents Association announced that a reporter who attended the press briefing room on Monday later tested positive for Covid-19. It was the second time in a week the organization needed to send out guidance to reporters about a possible Covid exposure.

Just a few days earlier, the WHCA announced that at least one administration official who attended the organization’s indoor Christmas party later tested positive for the virus. And Tuesday’s email came just a day after the White House itself said President Joe Biden had been in close contact with a “mid-level” staffer who later tested positive. (‘Who has Covid?’ has become something of a grim parlor game among some White House aides with varying theories on the identity of said “mid-level” official).

West Wing Playbook spoke with several reporters in the briefing room who attended the briefings this week. The view was a mix of apprehension at the idea of Omicron disrupting their holiday plans and resignation that they probably were screwed, considering the tight confines in which they work and the astronomical spread currently happening in the nation’s capital….

“Why are we all here?” a reporter from a major newspaper quipped to a colleague in the hallway near the press room on Monday. “We’re superspreaders.”

One knowledgeable source said that the WHCA had privately expressed concern to the White House about the possibility of spread among the press corps. While there have not been any known instances in recent days of a journalist infecting another journalist at the White House, some members expressed nervousness that the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, which now makes up the vast majority of new Covid cases in the U.S., made it all but inevitable. The organization also expressed concerns that positive cases could reduce the number of available pool reporters.

“Why must reporters feel compelled to put themselves at risk if so many other interactions with reporters are done virtually?” wondered one member of the association.

High vaccination rates among members of the White House press corps has alleviated some concern about catching a serious case of Covid from a possible exposure in the briefing room. According to an email sent to members of the organization last week, 97 percent of respondents to a recent survey of the WHCA press corps are vaccinated and boosted, and Psaki said on Monday at least 99 percent of White House staffers are vaccinated and boosted.

The White House itself is attempting to operate in a state of relative normalcy. Despite canceling the White House Christmas party, it has still been hosting pre-scheduled holiday tours, which even the unvaccinated can attend with a negative PCR test result….During briefings on Monday and Tuesday, Psaki reiterated that the Biden administration also opposed broad lockdowns in response to the recent surge of cases and that the no-longer-novel coronavirus was “not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals as it was in March 2020.”

But anxiety is still evident. On Sunday, the White House Correspondents Association sent guidance to its members advising journalists not to come to the briefings unless necessary. If they did come, the organization suggested wearing KN95 masks and taking an at-home antigen test (if you could manage to get your hands on one).

Correspondents took the precautions they could. Multiple journalists said that before the briefing, they trekked up to the Capitol building, which was administering free PCR tests with quick turnaround times for those who arrived early enough to beat the lines. Few reporters lingered after the briefings to chat in the small enclosed spaces.

Before Tuesday’s briefing, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith asked correspondents to spread out if they could in order to reduce possible exposures to Covid. But the attempts were futile: As the briefing began, she and the others in the press pool ended up shoulder to shoulder to secure a better position to pose a question to Psaki.

Asked for comment, a White House official said it was their “priority” to ensure “the health and safety of everyone on the White House campus” alongside protecting the “access that the press has to the White House.”…

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