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A Fully Vaccinated White House Employee Tests Positive For COVID-19

NOEL KING, HOST:

A White House employee tested positive for the coronavirus, not for the first time. This individual was fully vaccinated. When someone has the vaccine but still gets COVID, it's called a breakthrough case. And breakthrough cases are complicating how the White House communicates about the effectiveness of the vaccine. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Only after news of this breakthrough case leaked out in the press did the White House acknowledge it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: Let me confirm that yesterday, a fully vaccinated White House official tested positive for COVID-19 off campus.

KEITH: Press Secretary Jen Psaki wouldn't say who it was for privacy reasons, only that it wasn't a senior official. They have mild symptoms and hadn't had contact with the president. Her message was, essentially, there's nothing to see here. And they don't want to stoke fear among the vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PSAKI: We know that there will be breakthrough cases. But as this instance shows, cases in vaccinated individuals are typically mild.

KEITH: For weeks, the White House has been celebrating the effectiveness of vaccines with big, mask-free, in-person events, hugs and handshakes. The signal was vaccines work, and they do. But pressed further, Psaki acknowledged this wasn't the first breakthrough case at the White House. Though, she declined to say how many there had been. The Biden team pledged to be transparent about cases. But Psaki said that pledge only applied to staff at the very highest levels, which is why this is the first public disclosure of these cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PSAKI: We committed that we would release information proactively if it is commissioned officers. We continue to abide by that commitment.

KEITH: This high-profile breakthrough case comes just days after the Biden administration settled on a new message about COVID, that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. But a small share of vaccinated people are getting it, too. And it's not just at the White House. A vaccinated member of Congress and several Texas lawmakers tested positive, too. For Dr. Kelly Gebo, this doesn't come as a surprise.

KELLY GEBO: It's not unexpected to have breakthrough cases. We know that with flu and other types of illnesses, when people are vaccinated, that they can still become ill.

KEITH: She's a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and sees breakthrough infections just about daily. Gebo says the COVID vaccines are more effective than flu shots at preventing illness. And if a vaccinated person gets COVID, they tend to have milder symptoms and are less likely to pass it on to others.

GEBO: We're going to be seeing COVID breakthrough cases in schools and in communities and all types of places. And it's not necessarily going to be an emergency.

KEITH: The exception being vaccinated people with compromised immune systems who could still get really sick. It's not clear whether this focus on breakthrough cases will hurt the administration's vaccination drive. But it has been slow going lately. Only 68.3% of U.S. adults have gotten at least one dose more than two weeks after missing President Biden's goal of 70% by July 4. At an event yesterday honoring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for their Super Bowl win, Biden made a personal vaccination pitch to the young men standing behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And y'all who don't have a shot, man, get one, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, man...

BIDEN: Get one. Get one, get one. And you're saving lives...

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: ...Helping us get back our lives and our loved ones.

KEITH: So even as White House officials find themselves trying to explain breakthrough infections in their midst, they are urgently urging people to get vaccinated.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "LATE BLOOMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.