After learning what went down at the Gridiron Club dinner superspreader event, renowned environmental and occupational health physician Dr. Donald Milton, a pioneer of the modern science of airborne transmission of respiratory viruses, who had advised the White House since the beginning of the pandemic, approached the White House Correspondents Association with a proposal to install UV lights  at WHCA dinner for no charge to help prevent another superspreader event from happening.

“We thought it would be nice to try and prevent that [Gridiron superspreading experience] especially given that some high profile attendees like president Joe Biden would be at the dinner,” said Dr. Milton.

On August 6, 2020, world-renowned scientist Dr. Kimberly Prather, elected into the National Academy of Engineering (2019) and the National Academy of Sciences (2020), was the first to break the news to Dr. Anthony Fauci that particles containing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are airborne.

“Oh, my God,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said to her.” You mean it goes further than six feet? Wow, why did we get it wrong for so long?”Dr. Fauci was “shocked”, Dr. Kimberly Prather warmly recalled their conversation.”For one hundred years, the belief in the scientific community has been that a droplet falls within six feet. I convinced him that aerosols up to 100 microns can go further than six feet. That whole belief system that things don’t go further than six feet was completely wrong. I showed Fauci how far things go. It’s much further.” 

Dr. Prather is also the one who has been pushing the N95 masks in the White House. “I’ve also been pushing for filtration in the White House,” she said. 

Given that the risk of transmission of the airborne virus is much higher in inadequately ventilated and crowded indoor settings, Dr. Kimberly Prather believed that the WHCA dinner “should be organized in a safe way” and that “it was a good idea” that Dr. Milton’s offered to install the UV technology at the WH Correspondents dinner.

“It was a perfect place to do it. The highest risk places are indoors, low ventilation, lots of people, and no masks. At that point, when you take off the masks, there’s gonna be a really high viral load in the air. Washington DC had really high case numbers, so the chances of people being there that were infected was very high even with testing. Putting UV light was the way to go.” 

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and Chief of COVID Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute and co-founder of the World Health Network was worried about WHCA dinner as well. In his mind, the Gridiron dinner had already proved itself to be a super spreader as an “already much smaller” event than WHCA dinner.

In a room of 2600 people, there’s a 7.4% chance that nobody gets Covid-19.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and Chief of COVID Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute

“There’s more COVID than a couple of weeks ago, WHCA dinner is so much bigger, and the density of people at this Correspondents Dinner is much higher. Altogether, it’s the worst of three different situations, much worse than Gridiron in every single way.”

Doing the math calculation on the spot, Dr. Feigl-Ding quickly came up with the risk level of getting COVID at the WHCA indoor event, hosting 2600 people in the basement of the Washington Hilton.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, there’s only a 0.1% chance someone might carry the virus and 99.9% would not. But then, in a superspreading environment where you have 2600 people, that number [99.9% chance of not getting Covid-19] falls very fast.” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding.

The math was straightforward: in a room of 2600 people,”There’s a 7.4% chance that nobody has it.”

WHCA Dinner, April 30, 2022

The sheer number of people at the WHCA dinner, including all the catering staff indicated the high-risk environment for covid transmission.

“If one person has it [Covid-19]  in a super spreading environment with poor ventilation, then anyone who isn’t very recently boosted or hasn’t had COVID just two weeks ago would have a high chance of getting it,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding explained. At the WHCA dinner, “7.4 % chance that nobody gets it is a serious problem. And no one wants to admit this.”

UV light technology can cut down transmission by 80% and is a very standard method by now.

Dr. Donald Milton, a Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, with a secondary appointment in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine.

Health scientists were clear-eyed that something had to be done about WHCA dinner covid safety. Ventilation and filtration, according to Dr. Milton, were not enough to produce the required changes in an hour in a room of 2600 people.

One of the advantages of UV light technology, according to Dr. Milton “is that you know we have this infection happening by invisible particles floating in the air and we have this invisible light that is killing them.”

In terms of its impact on transmission, “UV light technology can cut down transmission by 80% and is a very standard method by now,” explained Dr. Donald Milton. Germicidal ultraviolet light has been around since the late 1930s as a means of preventing airborne infection and has been proven effective in preventing measles transmission in schools.

A seminar room in the University of Maryland School of Public Health building. Dr. Milton had the GUV lights and fan installed there. (Photo: University of Maryland School of Public Health

The old technology required that the UV light be “restricted to the upper part of the room, because they can hurt eyes; it doesn’t cause permanent damage, but it’s painful.”

The newer technology, however, “doesn’t penetrate the eye and it does not cause eye injury. It also doesn’t cause skin cancer. You can just shine it directly into the room without having to worry about air movement so much,” said Milton. 

Ultraviolet light is invisible, it doesn’t change the colors of what you see.

Dr. Donald Milton, a Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, with a secondary appointment in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine.

It’s super spreading events that have been critical to keeping this pandemic going.

“The way we can stop super spreading events, is by doing something that can remove enough virus from the air fast enough that people don’t infect a lot of other people. Ventilation alone just can’t do that,” Dr.Milton explained. 

After weeks of Dr.Milton’s attempts to convince the organizers to take him up on his offer to install UV lights quickly and free of charge, the WHCA rejected the proposal.

According to Dr. Milton, dinner organizers were worried about “eye irritation” as well as “whether the UV lights will get in the way.Because, we initially were proposing that we use them on tripods and they suggested that maybe doing that would make the President look blue on TV.” But this concern was ill-founded. “Ultraviolet light is invisible, it doesn’t change the colors of what you see,” explained Dr. Milton.

“We talked about putting them around the perimeter. And so they were mainly worried about them being in the way of people moving around and wait staff moving around,” said Dr. Milton. “That version, where the UV lights are mounted on tripods was actually implemented in the Pentagon because it was easier to set them up quickly and get them installed. They’re used in the US Army headquarters.”

Dr. Kimberly Prather said that ”UV light has to be installed professionally. Don Milton offered them a company that does it professionally and makes it work.That would have been perfect for that venue. Absolutely perfect.” 

UV light has to be installed professionally. Don Milton offered them a company that does it professionally and makes it work.

Dr. Kimberly Prather,Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, and a Distinguished Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego.

While Dr. Milton and his scientific team answered questions and explained the science behind the UV light technology, trying to offer reassurance, it is Dr.Milton’s understanding that the WHCA is a “small organization and did not have the bandwidth to deal with this” as it was focused on “trying very hard to implement their testing and vaccine requirements, which Gridiron dinner did not have.” 

The additional factor for the free of charge UV light installation proposal to go down the wire was all pre and after dinner parties hosted by the major TV networks.

“We were not going to be able to implement this UV technology for all those other side events—I think it would have had marginal effects— but only really protect people who were just at the dinner,” said Dr. Milton. “Obviously, Biden didn’t go to any of them,” he added. 

The White House Correspondents Association said that Milton’s offer came “too late.”

“Well, it was clearly too late for them to get comfortable with the idea,” was  Dr. Milton’s reaction to their statement.  

WHCA dinner: Lesson not learned

On April 27, 2022, the three days ahead of the WHCA dinner, the District of Columbia run by Mayor Muriel Bowser stopped daily reporting of Covid cases to CDC. The nation’s capital, the hub of business, politics and diplomacy was about to host the dinner.

Was that a good decision in the face of a new pandemic? How can the scientists know there’s an outbreak if DC is not reporting the numbers to CDC? The media elite was on their way to celebrate at the basement of the  Washington Hilton hotel without UV light added and CO2 sensors placed on the tables to measure the air quality and safety. The 79-year-old President Biden was also in attendance. 

You remember the Trump White House, they relied on single testing, rapid testing. It’s like we did not learn a lesson.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and Chief of COVID Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute

The White House Correspondents Association said that their event implemented all protocols and went ”beyond” any guidance or regulation issued by CDC, or the DC health department. 

“I think what he’s saying is that requiring people to test before they come in and for those people who were in direct contact with Biden. By requiring that they have a medically supervised test shortly before the event is more than is required, recommended by the CDC,” said Dr Milton.

“Testing is good, but it’s not perfect,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding.“You remember the Trump White House, they relied on single testing, rapid testing. It’s like we did not learn a lesson,” he shared his frustration. He added, “In the Trump White House in the October 2020 outbreak, they relied on one rapid test. If you’re negative, you get to meet the President. And they’re using the same logic here, at the WHCA dinner. If you have a negative test, you get to hang out with the President at the WH Correspondents dinner. We obviously have boosters now but also, the virus is much more infectious now than ever before. Altogether, it’s still very risky.”

Putting people in a room where they are  “re-breathing over two thousand other people’s breath, in the high carbon dioxide (CO2) high environment,” according to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding was a “risky situation.” 

Indoor CO2 concentrations do not provide an overall indication of indoor air quality, but they can be a useful tool in assessing ventilation rates ( i.e. outdoor air). In the absence of other mitigation measures such as filtration and UV lights, indoor CO2 concentrations could be used as a marker  for risk of respiratory virus transmission. “CO2 can actually calculate the re-breathing exactly,” explained Dr. Feigl-Ding. 

A volunteer from the Naltic Industrials came to the WHCA dinner with one CO2 sensor. At 8:40 PM the CO? levels were at 2063 parts per million (PPM).  Those indicators, according to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, were “for sure” a sign of poor ventilation at the WHCA dinner.

“The average was 1800 PPM, 1900 PPM. Then they had some higher peaks, but still pretty bad,” he said. 

The ultraviolet light is a technology where “if you can’t get the fresh air through the air you get  fresh air equivalent,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. “If you cannot deliver fresh air, you must deliver at least disinfected air. And so between the two solutions, you should have to meet the ASHRAE equivalence guidelines,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding explained. 

Even if the space was compliant, ASHRAE ventilation standard is a minimum standard and does not cover pandemic mode.

Dr. Marwa Zaatari, Voting member of ASHRAE Standard 62.1 and a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force

According to Dr. Marwa Zaatari, Voting member of ASHRAE Standard 62.1 and a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force, “The CO2 levels measured in the space are higher than levels expected if the space were to be compliant to ASHRAE Ventilation Standard. Even if the space was compliant, ASHRAE ventilation standard is a minimum standard and does not cover pandemic mode.”

“I think the public should be more aware,” said Dr. Prather. “I would have hoped, you know, for the White House Correspondents dinner, that Dr. Fauci potentially could have been involved.  My dream would have been that they made that a statement. Not ‘Okay, we are ready to get our lives back, rip off our masks and we’ll all catch it.’ That should not have been the message. The message should have been: ‘There is a way to have dinner in a safe way. And we could put CO2 sensors out. There are things we could have done, we could have cleaned the air, we could have put filters.’ I have written to the White House and said ‘put these filtrations out, the Corsi-Rosenthal Box , or HEPAs, whatever you want to put. Put those around.’ I asked them to put them on Joe Biden’s desk,” she said. 

“There are ways that you can filter the virus from the air and have clean air and then people can remove their masks. Pushing for removal of masks, without cleaning indoor air is not okay. That’s not the order you should get it,” Dr. Prather explained.

I have written to the White House and said ‘put these filtrations out, the Corsi-Rosenthal Box, or HEPAs, whatever you want to put. Put those around.’ I asked them to put them on Joe Biden’s desk.

Dr. Kimberly Prather,Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, and a Distinguished Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego.

“Everybody wants to take their masks off. Everybody wants their lives back, but with clean indoor air, using the ways that you can do it. You filter out the air, you clean the air, you ventilate, you bring in the fresh air. There are so many ways to protect people. And, you know, it’s not out there. It’s not out there in the way that it could or should be. And that is, you know, incredibly frustrating after, what, two and a half years.”

While one of the arguments for partygoers was that the dinner was “voluntary”, some news network  employees who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they felt “peer pressure to attend.” 

“But you know who didn’t volunteer to be there?,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. “The waiters and waitresses.” 

According to the Hilton PR with whom The Pavlovic Today spoke, catering staff were required by WHCA to be masked, but further specification as to mask type, whether staff should wear a cloth mask, now deprecated by the CDC,or the superior N95, was absent. “Most people in the room were unmasked. So that would make a minimal difference,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. 

In science we trust?

While WHCA did focus on rigorous same-day testing and vaccine requirements, people still got infected with COVID. Secretary Blinken, VOA’s Steve Herman, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, and many others partygoers who did not come forward.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl, went through same-day medically-supervised testing. Throughout the dinner he was sitting in the audience at the ABC table next to Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson. Announced as the winner of “Excellence in Presidential Coverage Under Deadline Pressure” award, ABC’s veteran reporter left the table and went up on the stage to receive the prize. Before addressing the audience from the podium, he shook hands with President Biden

I don’t even know that many reporters who went to WHCA dinner and I can already count enough for two hands.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and Chief of COVID Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute

On Monday, two days after the dinner, Jonathan Karl publicly announced he tested positive for COVID-19. What was the risk of infecting the President of the United States?

“Jonathan Karl may not have given it to Biden, because Jonathan Karl may have gotten it from someone at his table, so he could have just been affected. So, if Jonathan Karl was just infected, he wouldn’t be infectious to Biden immediately. So it doesn’t imply that Biden is immediately infected,” said Eric Feigl-Ding. “But it’s so risky,” Dr. Feigl-Ding explained, “because he’s ‘close contact’ with someone. This room is very risky.  Biden was more elevated on stage and separated from other people. But still, it’s too incredibly risky.” 

George Cheek, the president and chief executive of CBS who sat next to Biden on stage, also tested positive days after the dinner. 

From top TV network executives to the White House correspondents to many other “guests of the guests,” the COVID virus did not discriminate. Every news network has been hit with COVID, so many reporters across the networks got infected, why is no one tabulating?  If journalism is the Fourth Estate overseeing political power, who watches the watchers? 

 “I don’t even know that many reporters who went to WHCA dinner and I can already count enough for two hands,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. 

If the WHCA dinner, including all the pre and post partygoers were to help science, so humanity could really learn from this, the networks should provide the data and research could have been done to inform the fight against the pandemic. 

Dr. Milton working on Gesundheit-II at the Public Health Aerobiology, Virology and Exhaled Biomarker Laboratory (PHAB Lab).He invited WHCA goers who tested positive to contribute to science by coming to University of Maryland School of Public Health to breathe into the Gesundheit-II.

Dr. Milton invited WHCA goers who tested positive to contribute to science by coming to the University of Maryland School of Public Health to breathe into the Gesundheit-II so they can measure virus in breath with and without  N95 mask. Gesundheit-II is a device Dr.Milton developed with colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health about 15 years ago to study viruses and people’s breath. “I invited people who might have gotten infected at dinner to come out to the University of Maryland, College Park, and contribute to science by letting us measure how much viruses are in there,” said Dr. Milton. 

—So how many people who attended WHCA dinner responded?, I asked.

  “Not very many,” Dr. Milton was honest. “We can test several people, two or three people a day. We did not exceed our testing capacity.”

“In science, we trust,” says the media. People inside the Washington media fishbowl and political in-crowd should let the fresh air and the new ideas in. 

Newsletter

Follow Us

Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer

Ksenija Pavlovic is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Pavlovic Today, The Chief White House Correspondent. Pavlovic was a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Fellow in the Political Science department...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Is anyone really worried about any of those people? They have a cold. They should stay away from people who are sickly and elderly. They should do a big mea culpa to the unvaccinated, who are not the ones likely to get or spread it. Data from Walgreens and multiple countries show the triple-boosted are the most likely to be infected and the unvaccinated the least likely. When will the media start reporting facts?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.