News & Politics

Why Won’t the DC Government Comment on Whether the White House Is Causing Local Covid Cases to Rise?

Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.
Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

Washingtonian is keeping you up to date on the coronavirus around DC.

Over the past two weeks, DC has seen a slight rise in coronavirus cases and spread. While some of this could be attributed to quarantine fatigue or the change in weather, its synchronous timing with the infamous Rose Garden superspreader event raises some questions about the cause. Questions that, so far, DC officials have failed to answer.

The most recent example occurred at a press conference Wednesday. When asked whether any White House-related cases were being included in the city’s count, DC Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt responded “if we were to have any cases related to that, they would be classified as a workplace .” When pressed on if there were any cases included, she responded, “any other questions?”

That comment inspired ridicule online, but to be fair, there’s nothing easy about accounting for a Covid outbreak in a part of DC that the local government has no say over. As we previously reported, DC’s status as a municipality encompassing federal lands creates a public health nightmare scenario. The White House handles contact tracing (or lack thereof) for the individuals it tests for Covid, and Mayor Bowser has had to plead with the Trump administration for cooperation. 

It’s possible individuals connected to the White House are being tested at DC sites or at DC doctor’s offices, and are therefore a part of the city’s overall case count. But as soon as news of the Rose Garden event spread, DC officials have maintained that they wouldn’t talk “about specific White House cases.”

The city says it’s a matter of confidentiality. According to DC Health, the department “does not release identifying information or details of case or cluster investigations,” apparently because this would be a breach of right to privacy protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. In other words, DC Health doesn’t identify when there are clusters at specific workplaces in the city.

That’s an expansive reading of HIPAA, and an extremely generous policy toward a place of business that hosted another rally on Saturday and has shown little appetite for even basic precautions like masks—and many of whose employees interact with the rest of the District daily.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.