Masks for thee? Jill Biden and the dancing nurses of the White House

This is clearly not the holiday palate cleanser we all need and want, but maybe it’s the palate cleanser we all deserve. While the White House advises Americans to scale down their Christmas celebrations and impose masking on guests, Jill Biden played the maskless hostess on Tuesday to the Northwell Health Nurse Choir and their rendition of “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame. The two lead singers also go maskless for some reason while projecting their voices into the room, while the official video shows the maskless First Lady beaming in appreciation.

My first thought on seeing this was surprise that Hillary Clinton could carry a tune. I kid, I kid 

“Why is one woman unmasked while the others around her are masked,” my friend and colleague Katie Pavlich objected, “[w]hile Jill Biden is also unmasked”? There are actually two singers unmasked, presumably because they are the two principal leads for this song and require more air to carry their parts of the song. As someone who sings in a choir, the masks make even the normal support singing more difficult, especially with the dance routine added to the effort.

Except, as others have deduced, this appears to be entirely lip-synched. If that’s the case, why would the other two women not be wearing masks? And for that matter, don’t we have more pressing duties for nurses in this “winter of illness and death” than in entertaining the royal family?

The more egregious violation here, though, is from Jill Biden. While the administration hammers on mask wearing indoors, especially with larger gatherings, we have an entire dancing choir act performing in front of the First Lady while she goes maskless for no good reason whatsoever. (It doesn’t appear that anyone else other than the camera crew were on hand.) Even if the two lead singers need to be unmasked, Dr. Biden doesn’t and should be modeling the behavior that this administration wants to scold everyone else into adopting, especially when everyone else really needs a little Christmas with friends and family.

Well, everyone in the room is surely vaccinated, people will likely claim in defense of this display. If that was enough, why mask the other nurses? And it’s clearly not enough according to this administration, as none other than Anthony Fauci declared just a couple of weeks before this event:

If you’re hosting such a party, you should rely on a combination of safety strategies, like gathering outdoors, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. You can also ask your unvaccinated guests to quarantine and get tested before the event, as an additional layer of assurance.

The risk grows further if you’re in a “public congregate setting,” where you can’t realistically know who’s vaccinated, Fauci said last week. That could mean an office holiday party at an indoor bar where vaccination isn’t required, or even taking a crowded bus home.

In those situations, “it is very prudent to wear a mask,” Fauci said. “That’s what I do.” You can briefly lower your mask to safely eat a cookie or drink some eggnog, but try to keep it on as much as possible.

It’s also not enough because it has become very clear that the vaccinated can still be vectors for spreading COVID-19. In fact, PolitiFact dropped a “Mostly False” rating on Joe Biden yesterday for his continuing claims that the vaccinated “do not spread the disease to anyone else”:

Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, said Biden’s December “statement is not accurate.”

“We knew that vaccinated people could become infected with delta and shed viable virus in large amounts,” Hanage said. “While data are emerging and not yet complete for omicron, this appears to be even more the case for that variant.” …

Biden is correct that COVID-19 is primarily a disease of the unvaccinated when we look at hospitalizations and deaths, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

However “vaccinated people can shed virus and be contagious but generally shed virus in lower quantities and for a shorter amount of time.” Offit pointed to a study from Singapore which found that vaccinated individuals who caught COVID-19 “had a more rapid decline in viral load, which has implications on secondary transmission and public health policy.” The study was done based on cases earlier this year before omicron emerged.

Brooke Nichols, a health economist and infectious disease mathematical modeler at Boston University, said “vaccinated individuals can definitely infect other people. There is enough data to support this.”

“While vaccinated individuals may be less infectious and infectious for a shorter duration of time they are by no means a dead-end host,” Nichols said. “When calling it a pandemic of the unvaccinated, though, it makes it sound as those vaccinated individuals aren’t substantially contributing to new cases — which they are (particularly now). Unvaccinated individuals do, however, continue to contribute disproportionately to hospitalizations and deaths.”

That’s what makes this silly episode much more meaningful. The Biden administration insists on imposing vaccination mandates as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19. But it doesn’t actually contain it, especially with Omicron but also with Delta either. Vaccinations help tremendously in preventing serious illness or even symptomatic illness, which is why everyone apart from those entirely contraindicated should get vaccinated. But those that don’t assume the risks of severe illness and death, and don’t uniquely contribute to community transmission.

The correct message should be for the vaccinated and boosted to live their lives, get together, while taking some minimal precautions in larger gatherings. For those who have serious risks and co-morbidities or live with people who do, those precautions will likely need to be a bit more robust. And since Dr. Biden stays in close contact with a near-octogenarian who happens to be the leader of the free world, that definitely includes her.

Addendum: Are these nurses using “useless face decorations,” rather than surgical masks?