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New wave of Covid cases hits U.S. officials, rattles Washington

WASHINGTON — A fresh wave of Covid-19 cases swept through the nation’s capital this week, striking officials at the highest levels of government and disrupting business just as President Joe Biden and other political leaders are urging a return to normalcy.

“Well, I think the tendency is that Covid-19 is totally behind us, but it isn’t,” said a maskless Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who represents the San Francisco Bay Area with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tested positive Thursday.

“And we still have to have a high level of awareness, be vaccinated, be boosted, so that if, in fact, the infection hits us, that it would be a very mild case. And thank God that’s what it is” for the speaker, said Eshoo, who is one of Pelosi’s closest friends in Congress.

Two top Biden Cabinet members — Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo — tested positive for Covid after attending the Gridiron Club Dinner over the weekend.

Other attendees of the exclusive, white-tie event also tested positive, including Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Jamal Simmons, a top aide to Vice President Kamala Harris; and Valerie Biden Owens, the president’s sister.

On Thursday evening, just hours after voting to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced she had tested positive and was experiencing “mild symptoms.” Collins also had attended the Gridiron dinner.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., also tested positive for Covid Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Pelosi, second in line to the presidency after Harris, became the highest-ranking current government official to test positive for Covid. It came one day after she attended an unmasked bill-signing event at the White House alongside Biden; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and other congressional leaders. The White House later said Biden was not a close contact of Pelosi.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the 82-year-old speaker, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, is asymptomatic but will quarantine. She did not attend the Gridiron dinner.

Her office made the announcement moments before Pelosi was set to meet with reporters for her weekly news conference, which was quickly scrapped. She also had been scheduled to lead a delegation of lawmakers on a closely watched trip to Taiwan and Japan next week; the trip had caused an international row, with Beijing saying it would take “strong measures” against the U.S. if Pelosi set foot in Taiwan.

But the trip was immediately postponed.

The spate of high-profile cases comes as masks have come off in the Capitol complex and around Washington and big, crowded indoor events like the Gridiron dinner and other Washington traditions have returned after a two-year absence. The massive White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which will be hosted by comedian Trevor Noah, is set for April 30.

Eshoo said she was with Pelosi on Wednesday at a packed, indoor ceremony to unveil the portrait of former Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. The night before, Eshoo hosted a dinner for Pelosi. 

Would she rethink her decision not to wear a mask in the Capitol? “It gives me pause,” Eshoo replied.

Did she plan to get tested Thursday, given her proximity to Pelosi? “If I can, before I leave,” Eshoo said as the House was wrapping up votes for the week.

The latest round of Covid cases set members of the U.S. Senate on high alert as they worked this week to confirm Jackson to the Supreme Court. Given Democrats’ razor-thin margin, a major outbreak in the upper chamber could have sidelined a number of lawmakers and delayed Jackson’s confirmation, which took place Thursday in a historic 53-47 vote.

All week, Schumer was warning his members to “Stay healthy!” according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a member of the Democratic leadership team.

“Obviously, if we had had a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus this week [test positive], it would have been a major disruption,” Stabenow said. “There are times when, for us, if there’s a close vote, it becomes a disruption.”

Several Capitol Hill reporters and other members of Congress also tested positive this week, including one of Pelosi’s deputies, Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark, D-Mass., as well as Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.

When the House is in session, Kilmer shares a condo in Washington with his friend Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. When Kilmer tested positive, Kildee didn’t return to the condo.

“I wasn’t there last night, because I stayed in a hotel last night,” Kildee said.

“This has been an interesting week. … The fox bites Ami Bera. Fred Upton quits,” Kildee explained. “There are ‘Veep’ days, there’s ‘House of Cards’ days, and there are ‘West Wing’ days.”

“And what was this week?” a reporter asked.

“This was a ‘Veep’ week, for sure,” Kildee replied.

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