An April 5, 2022 photo shows US President Joe Biden signing H.R. 3076, the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022, during a ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC. From left: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Rob Portman, Senator Thom Tillis, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and Senate Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, has tested positive for Covid-19, her spokesman said April 7, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: President Joe Biden spent an hour with Nancy Pelosi in the two days before she tested positive for Covid-19, including an embrace and a kiss on the cheek - yet the White House insisted Thursday he doesn’t qualify as a “close contact” of the House speaker.

Biden, who just received his second booster dose of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine last week, tested negative for the virus Wednesday evening. Because he wasn’t deemed to have spent enough time around Pelosi, he won’t follow Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that close contacts wear a mask for 10 days, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Pelosi, 82, tested positive Thursday after testing negative earlier this week, spokesman Drew Hammill said in a tweet. She is fully vaccinated and boosted and will isolate consistent with CDC guidance, he said.

The House speaker’s case of Covid-19 is the latest in a series of exposures and infections that has brought the virus ever closer to the president. Pelosi stood at Biden’s right elbow on Wednesday as he signed a Postal Service bill into law. A day earlier, she attended an event celebrating the Affordable Care Act, joining Biden and former President Barack Obama on stage afterward, where she and Biden exchanged a hug and a peck on the cheek.

The White House said that Biden wasn’t a close contact of Pelosi because he didn’t spend a cumulative 15 minutes within six feet of the speaker over 24 hours. The CDC’s guidance differs, asking people exposed to the virus to consider first whether they were within six feet of an infected person over the two days prior to symptoms or a positive test, and second if they had spent 15 minutes in the infected person’s presence over the last 24 hours.

“If the answers to the questions above are both yes, the person is a close contact, regardless of whether the person was wearing a mask properly,” the agency says on its website.

Biden and Pelosi were both without masks at times in each other’s company Tuesday and Wednesday.

CDC spokespeople didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about whether the White House was correct in its interpretation.

Regardless, Biden spent an hour relatively close to Pelosi in the two days before her case - the time period the CDC advises people use when considering the extent of an exposure.

Vice President Kamala Harris was deemed a close contact after one of her staff tested positive on Wednesday. Under CDC guidelines, she should wear a mask “while around other people,” but took it off Thursday while celebrating the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Harris tested negative on Thursday.

Numerous other officials in Washington have tested positive this week in a spate of breakout infections. They include Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins and several House members. Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, also tested positive this week, according to a statement she issued.

Psaki signalled that the White House expects Biden to have a mild case, if he does get Covid. Both he and Harris received second booster shots last week after regulators cleared them for people age 50 and up.

“But obviously, you know, we would, he would be treated by his doctor and I’m not going to make a prediction of that at this point in time,” Psaki added.

Trip scrapped

Many of the officials who’ve reported positive tests this week attended the annual Gridiron Club Dinner April 2 along with hundreds of other people. Pelosi was not at the event. A congressional delegation trip to Asia, which Pelosi was leading, has been postponed, Hammill said.

Revelations of positive tests among members of Congress come just days after the US Capitol started to partially reopen to visitors - with staff or lawmaker-led tours of up to 15 people - after being mostly closed to the public for two years.

A memo issued late last month to lawmakers from William Walker, the House sergeant-at-arms, and Brian Monahan, the attending physician, said plans are for a full reopening of the Capitol to visitors and a restart of tours at the end of May.