America is getting a first glimpse of what it’s like to experience the outbreak of COVID-19 during this new phase of living with the virus, and the roster of newly infected is studded with stars.
Cabinet members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors and governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have all tested positive. Outbreaks at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are rolling back mask requirements on those campuses as officials look for quarantine space.
Experts say an outbreak in the Northeast may – or may not – signal what’s to come. The number of cases is no longer reliable as official testing and reporting has been reduced and more Americans are testing at home.
Across the country, mask wearing is at its lowest level since April 2020, said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics science at the University of Washington in Seattle. According to the latest estimate from his modeling group, for every 100 infections, only seven are recorded in the official figures.
Mokdad hopes that the high level of American immunity created from past infections and vaccinations will save the nation from a big boom.
“We’re going to have some transitions here and there, but it’s not going to shut down the country,” Mokdad said. “Life has to go on. We have to vaccinate and promote. We need to protect the vulnerable, but we have to get used to it.”
Large indoor gatherings with masks optional have transitioned to a high-profile party in Washington, DC, now seen as a potentially super-spreader event. Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, said other infection clusters may not be detected outside of the clusters that are routinely tested.
“It’s harder now than before to know what’s going on. The future is a little fuzzy because we don’t have that much information at our fingertips,” Michaud said. “If you’re not an actor or politician in a Broadway play, you get tested Can fall through the cracks.”
Michaud said the public health response will vary from community to community, depending on what is happening at the local level.
“We are fighting small fires across the country instead of one massive fire and those small fires can be disruptive,” Michaud said. “It’s up to everyone to choose their own adventures when it comes to pandemic response and individual behavior.”
In Washington DC, the outbreak has been particularly high profile – with Mayor Muriel Bowser and the president of Georgetown University killing several cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.
At least a dozen of those transitions can be traced to the Gridiron Club Dinner, an annual event in the DC social calendar that took place on a Saturday for the first time in three years. The dinner is an example of a return to near-total normality taking place across the country, leading to an increase in positive tests, but not necessarily due to serious illnesses or hospitalizations.
Washington, DC, like the rest of the country, has greatly eased its COVID stance in recent weeks. Bowser has allowed vaccination and indoor masking mandates to end, and the city’s health department stopped reporting daily virus numbers in early March. Attendees at the Gridiron Club dinner, which did not include Bowser, were required to provide proof of vaccination, but otherwise no masking or social distancing protocols were observed.
And other staples of the DC social calendar are back to normal, too. The city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival has been going on for weeks — with dozens of affiliated events including a parade scheduled for Saturday.
Amid that normal return to pre-pandemic behavior, there are some cautious steps back. Georgetown University announced it would reintroduce its indoor mask mandate amid rising infection numbers that include university president John DeGioa
Georgetown’s chief public health officer Ranit Mishori described the spike in infections as “significant” when announcing the new restrictions – especially among undergraduates. “Thankfully, to date, we are not seeing severe disease-associated cases for most people in our community to be vaccinated,” Mishori wrote.
DC Health Chief Dr. Laquandra Nesbitt, in comments to reporters this week, pointed to the ongoing low level of hospitalization as evidence that vaccination has successfully limited the severity of the disease.
Virus metrics in Washington have peaked over the past month, according to the city’s health department. The weekly case rate per 100,000 residents rose from 51 in early March to 110 at the end of March. But this is still well below the weekly case rate of 865 per 100,000 residents reported during the Omicron variant surge in the second week of January.
Nesbit said there were no immediate plans to reinstate any lapsed virus protocols, but that it always remained an option in the future.
“We need to remember that living with the virus does not mean forgetting the virus. It’s still out there, it’s still making people sick and some people are dying,” Michaud said. “If we’re not prepared, we could be in bad shape again.”
AP writer Ashraf Khaleel in Washington, DC contributed.