WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday, something the White House had taken extra steps to avoid as highly transmissible strains struck top aides, Cabinet members, the president’s chief medical adviser and the vice president.
Biden, 79, is experiencing “very mild” symptoms and is taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
While Biden’s vaccinations should protect him against serious illness, the infection is a blow to the administration’s efforts to show the president is on top of the pandemic that has disrupted the country for more than two years.
Biden will continue to work at the White House, where he will isolate until he tests negative, according to Jean-Pierre. Daily updates on Biden’s condition will be given during his isolation, she said.
Biden had last been tested for COVID-19 on Tuesday, when his result was negative, according to Jean-Pierre.
First lady Jill Biden tested negative
First lady Jill Biden, who is traveling, told reporters she spoke with the president Thursday morning.
“He’s doing fine,” she said. “He’s feeling good.”
The first lady tested negative Thursday morning in Detroit and will continue her full schedule in Michigan and Georgia, said her spokesman, Michael LaRosa.
She will continue following CDC guidelines with masking and social distancing, LaRosa said.
– Michael Collins
Biden’s symptoms include a runny nose, fatigue and an occasional dry cough, which started Wednesday evening, according to a letter released by Kevin O’Connor, Biden’s doctor.
O’Connor said he anticipates Biden will respond favorably to Paxlovid, “as most maximally protected patients do.”
Biden’s recent and upcoming trips
Biden traveled Wednesday to Massachusetts, where he announced steps to combat climate change.
He’d been scheduled to visit Pennsylvania on Thursday to talk about boosting law enforcement and reducing gun violence, as well as to attend a fundraiser.
Biden returned Sunday from a four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, where officials said in advance he would try to “minimize contact” because of the rise in COVID variants. Biden substituted fist-bumps for handshakes in some instances, including his controversial greeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Face masks were required on Air Force One, and passengers were tested for COVID, according to pre-trip guidance.
Will Biden keep working?
The White House had acknowledged that Biden could catch the virus as the president balanced potential risks with a return to regular activities.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a matter of time,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said on April 26. “But, of course, it is possible that the president, like any other American, could get COVID.”
Biden’s doctors previously assessed he could continue to carry out his duties if he contracted the virus, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in April.
“He has access to the best health care in the world,” Psaki said at the time.
Other notable COVID cases
Psaki herself tested positive in late March, months after a previous bout of COVID.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is third in line for the presidency, tested positive in April, as did three Cabinet secretaries, several members of Congress and Biden’s sister.
Pelosi said Thursday she hopes Biden’s symptoms “continue to be (light). That was my experience.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, tested positive in June. He later had a rebound infection after taking Paxlovid.
Vaccines and White House protocols
Biden has been vaccinated, and he received his first booster shot in September and a second at the end of March.
In addition, the White House had gone beyond CDC’s recommended protocols to protect Biden from the virus. Anyone who meets with the president or is traveling with him is tested first. When possible, Biden is also kept socially distanced from others, Psaki previously said. And the president is regularly tested.
Still, Biden makes risk assessments, “just like many Americans,” when he feels it’s important for him to travel or attend an event in person, Psaki previously said.
“And certainly, that’s one of the reasons we want to be very clear that it is possible he could test positive for COVID,” she said on April 26.
Biden’s age puts him at higher risk
Beyond the vaccines he’s received, Biden could further improve his protection from severe illness by taking Paxlovid, which Harris was prescribed.
Biden is a relatively high risk for a severe case simply because of his age. On the positive side, he has no other major risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease.
Biden has urged Americans to get vaccinated and to get their booster shots, stressing that those who are protected can feel safer.
“There will be positive cases in every office, even here in the White House,” Biden said in December, when omicron was surging in Washington as he announced new measures to combat the pandemic.
Other world leaders who have gotten COVID-19 this year include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, Prime Minister Micheál Martin of Ireland, President Andrzej Duda of Poland and President Arif Alvi of Pakistan.
Contributing: Francesca Chambers, Rebecca Morin and Ella Lee.