There are many things that we don’t know about transmission of the COVID 19 virus. One thing is clear though, its unique tendency to spread in clusters — where one or a few infected persons infect a large number of individuals, often at a single event. This is interesting since the transmission of COVID-19 often appears to occur from only a few individuals, with little secondary spread.
The concept of a large number of infections from only a few individuals with limited secondary infections has been called the “super-spreader effect.” Understanding the phenomenon is crucial to limiting the spread of this disease. In particular, it appears that super-spreader events occur in large groups of individuals within closed spaces, with little air movement. But the exact dynamics that cause these events are unknown.
Remarkably, there is now a well controlled incident where we can study super-spreader events. This is the White House reception for Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett. This event resulted in the COVID-19 infection of large numbers of White House staff, U.S. senators, and possibly the President of the United States.
Several aspects of this event make it unique and important to study. First, for security reasons, everyone at the event is defined and known. Their backgrounds and movements can be identified. It is likely that the individual(s) responsible for the infections can be identified and their movement through the event documented. One could actually define the proximity of infected people to that individual and gain insights into transmission of the virus.
In addition, the actual event was highly scripted and contained both an inside and outside component. Not all guests attended both components, so comparing infections of the guests who were inside the White House to infections of guests at the larger Rose Garden component would be important to understand the role of interior space in transmission.
A number of other important questions also might be resolved by this event. Some individuals wore masks at the event while others did not. Therefore, it would be important to see how many masked individuals became infected versus those who weren’t wearing masks.
Reportedly, many individuals at the event were being screened with rapid COVID-19 tests. This could give insights into the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness for using this type of screening to prevent infections. It would be especially important if the super-spreader had been screened.
Since several individuals had prior COVID-19 infections, including Judge Barrett, it would be interesting to see if their immunity prevented reinfection or if these individuals simply were not in proximity to the super spreader.
The federal government owes it to the scientific and medical community to allow this event to be fully analyzed. I encourage the CDC to get involved and define just what happened and what made this one of the most prominent super-spreader events of COVID-19.