Irish prime minister's COVID case scrambles St. Patrick's Day plans in Washington

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seated next to the Irish Taoiseach at a gala Wednesday.

March 17, 2022, 1:05 PM

President Joe Biden met virtually with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin Thursday after Martin tested positive for COVID-19, scrambling holiday plans in Washington and hopes that St. Patrick's Day traditions would return in-person after two years.

"I'm really, deeply sorry for the inconvenience, that we have to meet virtually again this year -- although I did at a little distance for seven-and-a-half minutes get to see you yesterday and your beautiful wife, but especially after flying all the way here to Washington, with a lot going on up in the Hill and the rest," Biden said, speaking to the Taoiseach over video, seated next to a screen in the Oval Office.

Biden said the two leaders were meeting "in a moment when demands on unity in the world are really accelerating."

President Joe Biden meets virtually with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin in the Oval Office of the White House, March 17, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Martin, who has isolated across the street from the White House at the Blair House, where the Irish flag is on display, used his positive diagnosis to promote vaccinations.

"Last year, we met virtually across the Atlantic. This year, we're meeting virtually across the road, so we're getting closer," he joked. "But I'm feeling good, and I think that reminds us of the importance of vaccines, and, cause vaccines prevent severe illness. And that it reminds us that central message we give the people: get vaccinated if you're not vaccinated."

Biden, known to tout his Irish heritage, was set to host Martin for a traditional bilateral meeting and Shamrock handover, an Oval Office tradition to mark St. Patrick's Day dating back to 1952, but the event took place virtually, as they were forced to do last year in the pandemic due to travel restrictions.

President Joe Biden listens as Micheal Martin, Ireland's prime minister, left, speaks via videoconference during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, March 17, 2021.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seated next to Martin at Wednesday's Ireland Funds 30th National Gala, when he learned of his positive result over a course of appetizers, but she is still moving forward with her plans to host the Annual "Friends of Ireland" luncheon on Capitol Hill, which Martin had been scheduled to attend.

Pelosi tested negative this morning with a PCR test administered by the Capitol attending physician, according to a source familiar.

"In consultation with the Office of Attending Physician, the Speaker will continue regular testing and follow CDC guidance. The Friends of Ireland Lunch today will proceed but without the participation of the Taoiseach," her office said in a statement to ABC News.

Asked if she had any concerns for her health, Pelosi told reporters Thursday, "No, I don't, but I get tested almost every day."

"The Taoiseach had on a mask when he sat down but then when he started to eat, he took off the mask, and then it was right during the appetizer, they pulled him aside. We didn't know why. But then, sometime later, when it was my turn to speak, they told how we would proceed, that he would not be speaking," Pelosi explained during her weekly press conference.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, left, talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during the Ireland Funds 30thŠNational Gala at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2022.
Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA via AP

Biden also spoke at the gala, but the White House said he was not deemed a close contact of Martin. While the president's plans to meet Martin in the Oval Office are shot, Biden is still scheduled to attend Pelosi's luncheon on the Hill.

"I think we, Irish, are the only people in the world who actually are nostalgic for the future," Biden joked at Wednesday's gala, with Martin in the audience. "But, of course, that means dealing with the present. At this time, in our time, we've seen more change and challenge, I believe, than any time in generations."

Biden, 79, tested negative for COVID late last year after he was in close contact with an aide that tested positive. An aide of Pelosi's, 81, tested positive last summer, but her spokesperson said the aide had not been in close contact with the speaker since the exposure. Both Biden and Pelosi are fully vaccinated and boosted.

The Taoiseach's positive test rocking Washington comes as the nation largely eases COVID restrictions like mask mandates and as the White House shifts its messaging from mitigating the virus to living with it.

To that end, the White House announced Thursday morning that COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients will be replaced in April by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who has taken on a prominent role on television networks communing the pandemic to Americans.

Jha signaled that the role will be less about vaccine distribution and more about preparing for a future of living with the virus -- but he takes on the position with little political experience, at a time when the White House desperately needs Congressional funding to be prepared, and faces the prospect of dealing with a potential new surge from the BA.2 variant.

On Thursday, Pelosi expressed her anger and disappointment over Congress’ inability to pass additional COVID relief funding after House Democrats were forced to strip $15.6 billion from the spending bill last week over concerns about how the bill would be paid for. Republicans don’t think there is a need for additional funding, and Democrats don’t want that funding to be offset by cutting into other programs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi smiles during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, March 17, 2022.
Andrew Harnik/AP

“With all the protections of the Taoiseach of Ireland, he gets a positive diagnosis. Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, has a positive indication. What chance does a poor person with a big family, living in a small apartment working in a situation that may or may not be safe…?” Pelosi said Thursday, following a meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Pelosi has been fuming that members of her own party held up passage of the COVID funding last week, sources familiar told ABC News.

"I think we need all the money we can get, to have the resources that we need to fight COVID," she added. "The last thing we need is another variant."

Just this week, second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive for COVID, marking the first time a member of the first or second families shared a positive test result. Former President Barack Obama, who also shares an Irish heritage with Biden, also announced he tested positive for COVID one day prior.

ABC News' Cheyenne Haslett, Oren Oppenheim, Chad Murray and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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