A senior spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a White House official tested positive for Covid-19 after coming into contact with Democrats from the Texas state legislature last week.
The Pelosi spokesperson had helped show the Texas lawmakers, who came to Washington, D.C., to stop their majority-conservative state legislature from passing new voting restrictions, around the Capitol.
Over the weekend, five Texas lawmakers tested positive for Covid-19, with a sixth case announced on Monday. The positive tests sparked concerns regarding which federal lawmakers the Texas Democrats came into contact with, though White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Monday that Vice President Kamala Harris, who met with them last week, has since tested negative.
The speaker’s spokesperson was fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and had no contact with Pelosi since being exposed to the virus, according to the speaker’s office.
“The entire Press Office is working remotely today with the exception of individuals who have had no exposure to the individual or have had a recent negative test,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Our office will continue to follow the guidance of the Office of Attending Physician closely.”
Psaki confirmed during Tuesday’s press briefing that a fully vaccinated White House official tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday, saying the official currently "remains off-campus as they wait for a confirmatory PCR test." She said the White House medical unit has conducted contact tracing and interviews, finding no close contact among White House principals, staff or President Joe Biden.
Psaki said this isn’t the first breakthrough case at the White House. There have been other instances of vaccinated employees testing positive, Psaki said, though they were not commissioned officers and therefore were not reported by the administration.
"We committed that we would release information proactively if it is commissioned officers," she said, adding that "we continue to abide by that commitment." Commissioned officers hold a high-level position where they work for the president, rather than working for another White House official.
Asked later in the briefing whether the newly Covid-positive individual is a commissioned officer, Psaki said no. Were they a commissioned officer, Psaki said the White House would have "proactively" released information about their positive test. As it was, Axios reported the positive case before the White House released a public statement about the breakthrough infection.
Asked whether the administration fears that these breakthrough cases will spur more vaccine hesitancy among Americans, Psaki said she hasn’t seen data to indicate this trend. She also reiterated the White House’s testing protocols and emphasized that those who are more regularly in contact with Biden are also tested more regularly.
"We know that there will be breakthrough cases, but as this instance shows, cases in vaccinated individuals are typically mild," she said. "The White House is prepared for breakthrough cases with regular testing. This is another reminder of the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines against severe illness or hospitalizations, and of course we wish our colleague a speedy recovery."
These mild breakthrough infections signify a new phase of the pandemic in the U.S. — new cases and deaths are far lower than they were during the virus’ winter peak, but cases are on the rise. The situation is particularly bad in areas with poor vaccination rates, and the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, has declared that it’s “becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Walensky also said on Tuesday that the Delta variant accounts for more than 83 percent of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. The highly transmissible variant is stoking fear in some Americans, driving the virus’ upswing as many hoped the vaccine rollout would bring a return to normalcy and the end of the pandemic.
Over in Congress, Tuesday also brought news about the contagious Covid-19 variant. Attending Physician Brian Monahan said in a letter that several vaccinated congressional staff members and one member of Congress have seen breakthrough infections.
Amid widespread questions about whether Congress will change its masking policy, Monahan did not provide changes in requirements. He wrote in the letter that individuals have personal discretion when it comes to mask-wearing, but did note that "future developments in the coronavirus Delta variant local threat may require the resumption of mask wear for all as now seen in several counties in the United States."
The rise in the Delta variant also might be spurring a change in sentiment regarding vaccines for those who were previously hesitant to get them. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), for instance, got his first dose of the Pfizer shot on Sunday after holding out because he’d tested positive for antibodies.
And on Monday, Fox News host Sean Hannity told his conservative viewership he believes in the vaccine.
“Enough people have died,” Hannity, who’s been openly skeptical of the severity of the virus, said. “We don’t need any more deaths.” He told viewers to consult with their doctors and research before making “a very important decision for your own safety,” a notable shift in tone for the conservative network.
Around 60 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the shot, but vaccination rates have been dragging as states with low rates get hit especially hard by the pandemic. Though the breakthrough cases in vaccinated people can result in severe sickness and even death, this is a far less common result than in unvaccinated Americans.
Psaki said the Texas lawmakers’ positive cases will not have any effect on meetings with the president, since there were no meetings planned between the group and Biden.
These prominent positive tests come as Covid-19 breakthrough cases are increasingly discussed, with the Delta variant spreading and the White House working to vaccinate as many Americans as possible against the virus.
This same week, Rep. Vern Buchanan announced that he tested positive after being fully vaccinated, experiencing mild symptoms. Though breakthrough infections are to be expected, seeing as no vaccine is completely effective against contracting the virus, they tend to be milder than unvaccinated infections and are far less likely to result in hospitalizations.