Team Biden’s mask dance before the WHCD- POLITICO

 Team Biden’s mask dance before the WHCD- POLITICO

MASK ON, MASK OFF – Institutional DC parties are back with a vengeance, with the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner scheduled for this weekend despite rising Covid-19 caseloads in the region and a rash of infections linked back to the Gridiron dinner earlier this month.

Washington announces conference season in session. You may now spittle on your neighbor.

It’s not just nerd proms and insider roasts, either. After a long pandemic winter, even in-person health policy conferences are budding alongside the Washington-area flora.

The World Vaccine Congress just wrapped up its first non-virtual confab in DC in three years, with the American Hospital Association on deck for its own live gathering this week.

AHA is not requiring masks, vaccination proof or – as recommended by the CDC – a test in the 24 hours prior to the event.

The World Vaccine Congress was stricter, asking for proof of vaccination or a test within 72 hours and recommending masks – when not on stage.

When even the health wonks are gathering in person, it’s a sign that the new, more casual pandemic mood may be here to stay. (POLITICO’s inaugural health care summit last month didn’t require mitigation measures, though it was a much smaller event than the World Vaccine Congress or the AHA meeting.)

For all the health care establishment has done to educate the public on best practices during a pandemic, it’s proving to be inconsistent on modeling that behavior for the masses. Vaccination requirements? Sometimes. Mask recommendations? Maybe.

The conferences have led Biden officials to do their own mask-policy dance. Many top health officials are attending the three-day AHA summit, and not one – including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure – has committed to wearing a mask indoors.

That is in line with the current CDC recommendation for the DC area, but the string of maskless big events comes during a federal fight to keep transportation mask mandates in place – using arguments for airline passengers and flight attendants that could apply just as well to unmasking at an indoor wonkfest with hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, one of the Biden officials speaking at the event, tweeted last week that he would continue to wear high-quality masks while traveling.

“Right now, with cases rising and with hospitalizations starting to increase in some states, taking precautions while traveling still makes sense, ”he said wrote on Twitter. “Even if you’re low risk and aren’t concerned about # COVID19, you could transmit the virus to someone who isn’t so lucky… Our decisions affect others.”

Yet Murthy’s spokesperson, Alexandria Phillips, told Nightly that Murthy wouldn’t necessarily wear a mask at the AHA conference, citing CDC guidance that he didn’t need to because DC hospitals aren’t currently burdened with Covid patients.

POLITICO asked why Murthy wears a mask while traveling but not at an in-person event where many people may have traveled to attend. Phillips didn’t answer.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s authors at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]or on Twitter at @Gardner_LM, @owermohle and @rachael_levy.

Other Biden officials point to high vaccination rates among DC residents and other areas like New York City, where the mayor has also resisted reinstating mask mandates.

One senior official told Nightly that the true test will be in more rural areas, ones with lower vaccination rates and less hospital capacity – which is why the administration is fighting for the travel mask requirement.

While case counts have steadily risen through April and hospitalization rates are beginning to inch upward again, hospitals haven’t seen a spike like the Delta wave that stressed some health systems to capacity. Administration officials and public health policy experts say the next two weeks will show whether the milder, but still highly transmissible, Omicron and its subvariants will spark a new hospital wave.

“We’re at a crossroads,” the official said last week. “No one knows yet whether hospitalizations are going to rise; that’s what everyone is waiting to see. ”

Rising case counts haven’t dampened the pandemic shift to personal choice and responsibility rather than national requirements. And most people, including health officials and industry leaders, are choosing not to mask.

“There’s people wandering around here without masks,” said Nicole Lurie, director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations’ US arm, last week during a World Vaccine Congress panel. “I don’t get it. But there’s something about human behavior that we’re still not really understanding. “