Gottlieb: Biden, Pelosi's Contact Close Enough to Give Him COVID Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi greets President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty)
By Sandy Fitzgerald | Sunday, 10 April 2022 03:46 PM
The White House insisted last week that President Joe Biden wasn't in contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi long enough to catch COVID-19 from her, but former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines concerning close contact have always been "bizarre."
"Air kissing or hugging, that was close contact," Gottlieb said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"With respect to the president, I hope he does well and doesn't catch it. I do think he's probably out of the woods from his exposure to the Speaker of the House, but saying that that wasn't close contact where we have pictures of him hugging the Speaker, that clearly was close contact."
White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told CNN on Friday that the president has been vaccinated and has gotten his booster shots and that he'd only been in contact with Pelosi for a short time, so he was safe.
The CDC's guidelines say a 15-minute transmission comes into play for a COVID infection, but Gottlieb said Sunday that one must be "plainspoken and practical" when it comes to COVID.
"The CDC guidance was always bizarre," he said. "It talked about 15 cumulative minutes as if this is radiation exposure, that you have an increased risk from cumulative exposure. This is binary. You either catch it or you don't."
The CDC, in the guideline, is defining a "minimum standard" for close contact, said Gottlieb.
"If you're hugging someone, that certainly supersedes 15 minutes of being around someone within six feet, so we just need to be practical about this," he continued. "Close contact is what we know close contact is."
Meanwhile, COVID cases are dropping nationwide, but Gottlieb, who sits on the board of vaccine maker Pfizer, said Sunday he thinks the case numbers are being undercounted.
"We're experiencing an outbreak here in the northeast, also the mid-Atlantic, parts of Florida as well, which tends to track the northeast," he said, adding that the current wave is being driven by the omicron BA.2 variant.
"We're probably only picking up one in seven or one in eight infections, so when we say there are 30,000 infections a day, there's probably closer to a quarter of a million infections a day," said Gottlieb.
"They're concentrated in the Northeast right now and that's because a lot of people are testing at home. They're not presenting for definitive PCR tests, so they're not getting counted."
Still, the cases are concentrated in the Northeast cities but "the rest of the country looks pretty good right now," said the doctor, adding that he does not expect BA.2 to create a national epidemic.
"And as we get further into the spring, we're likely to see these case counts come down, even here in the northeast," Gottlieb added.
The cases might also be undercounted because the CDC has shifted its measurements to count hospitalizations rather than infections, and hospitalizations are low now, said Gottlieb.
"There are 15,000 people hospitalized," he said. "That's the lowest point we've been at any point in this pandemic. And I suspect hospitalizations aren't going to go up a lot because a lot of the people who are getting infected right now with BA.2 are people who escaped the B.1 omicron wave, and they escaped it in large measure because they were vaccinated. They were prudent. They took precautions, they tested."
Booster doses are also making a difference and the COVID rate, as they reduce the risk of serious illness, said Gottlieb, but he said the word booster is a misnomer at this point.
"We're transitioning towards this probably becoming an annual vaccination starting this fall," said Gottlieb. "It's more than likely that there'll be a recommendation for everyone to get another dose in the fall, and that will be the start of this becoming an annual vaccine."