WASHINGTON — For more than a year, President Joe Biden’s ability to avoid the coronavirus seemed to defy the odds. When he finally did test positive, the White House was ready. It set out to turn the diagnosis into a “teachable moment” and dispel any notion of a crisis.
“The president does what every other person in America does every day, which is he takes reasonable precautions against COVID but does his job,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told MSNBC late in the afternoon on Thursday.
It was a day that began with Biden’s COVID-19 results and included repeated assurances over the coming hours that the president was hard at work while isolating in the residential areas of the White House with “very mild symptoms” including a runny nose, dry cough and fatigue.
Biden, in a blazer and Oxford shirt, recorded a video from the White House balcony telling people: “I’m doing well, getting a lot of work done. And, in the meantime, thanks for your concern. And keep the faith. It’s going to be OK.”
“Keeping busy!” he also tweeted.
On Friday, Biden was scheduled to meet virtually with his economic team and senior advisors to discuss congressional priorities.
It was all part of an administration effort to shift the narrative from a health scare to a display of Biden as the personification of the idea that most Americans can get COVID and recover without too much suffering and disruption if they’ve gotten their shots and taken other important steps to protect themselves.
The message was crafted to alleviate voters’ concerns about Biden’s health — at 79, he’s the oldest person ever to be president. And it was aimed at demonstrating to the country that the pandemic is far less of a threat than it was before Biden took office, thanks to widespread vaccines and new therapeutic drugs.
Conveying that sentiment on Day 1 of Biden’s coronavirus experience virus wasn’t always easy, though.
In a lengthy briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said repeatedly that the White House had been as transparent as possible about the president’s health. But she parried with reporters over specifics. And when pressed about where Biden might have contracted the virus, she responded, “I don’t think that that matters, right? I think what matters is we prepared for this moment.”
Jean-Pierre and White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha didn’t fully answer questions about whether Biden began isolating as soon as he started experiencing symptoms on Wednesday night, as federal guidelines suggest, or did so following his positive test the next day. Jha declined to speculate on some aspects of the president’s prognosis, characterizing the questions as hypotheticals.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said it’s important for Americans to know they must remain careful about the virus, which continues to kill hundreds of people daily.
“That’s the balance that we have to strike,” Osterholm said. “The president of the United States will do very well. But that may not be true for everyone.”
Biden’s first-day symptoms were mild in large part because he’s fully vaccinated and boosted, according to a statement issued by his physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor. The president also is taking Paxlovid, an antiviral drug designed to reduce the severity of the disease.
Jha said Biden’s case was being prioritized, meaning it will likely take less than a week for sequencing to determine which variant of the virus Biden contracted. Omicron’s highly contagious BA.5 sub-strain now makes up more than 65% of U.S. cases.
Jean-Pierre said first lady Jill Biden was in close contact with the president, but she declined to discuss others who also might have been exposed, citing privacy reasons. Biden had traveled to Massachusetts a day earlier to promote efforts to combat climate change and flew on Air Force One with several Democratic leaders, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
A White House official confirmed that Vice President Kamala Harris was also in close contact with Biden, and Klain said he was too.
Klain, who called the president’s testing positive a “teachable moment” for the country, said the White House wasn’t aware of any positive COVID results that were linked to the president’s case.
During her briefing, Jean-Pierre bristled at suggestions the Biden administration wasn’t being much more forthcoming with information about the president’s illness than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump. The former president contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, before vaccines were available, and was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three nights.
“I wholeheartedly disagree,” Jean-Pierre said of comparison. “We are doing this very differently — very differently — than the last administration.”
Asked about the possibility Biden might need to be hospitalized, Jha stressed that the president was “doing well” and added that there were “obviously a lot of resources available here at the White House to take care of him.”
“Walter Reed is always on standby for presidents. That’s always an option,” he added. “That’s true whether the president had COVID or not.”
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said it was good for the White House to send the message that Biden can keep working even after testing positive.
“That shows that it’s business as usual,” Wren said.
Jean-Pierre’s predecessor, Jen Psaki, noted that White House officials have “been preparing for this probably for several months now, given the percentage of people in the country who have tested positive.”
“What they need to do over the next couple of days is show him working and show him still active and serving as president and I’m certain they’ll likely do that,” Psaki, who left her post as White House press secretary in May, said on MSNBC, where she’s becoming a commentator.
Biden plans to continue to isolate until he tests negative, the White House said.
Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute, said that could mean he’s “out of commission from interacting with people for at least eight to 10 days.”
“This could go on easily for a couple of weeks, but the good thing is they are going to monitor him very carefully,” Topol said. “That is what we should be doing for everyone so that we don’t keep playing into the virus’ hands, causing more spread when it’s already hyper-spreadable.”