WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday and went into isolation with mild symptoms. White House officials went all-out to show that the 79-year-old U.S. leader could power through the virus and keep working because he was vaccinated and boosted.
In a navy blazer and Oxford shirt, Biden recorded a video on a White House balcony to send the message that he would be fine and the country should stay calm and carry on. He recognizes the pandemic as a national trauma that has killed more than one million Americans and alarmed millions more, and his words in the video posted to Twitter were meant to be reassuring.
“I’m doing well, getting a lot of work done,” Biden said, the faint sound of an ice cream truck jingling in the distance. “And in the meantime, thanks for your concern. And keep the faith. It’s going to be OK.”
Thursday demonstrated one of the inevitable risks awaiting a president who has insisted on trying to reconnect with the world and everyday Americans after a prolonged lockdown. It was a reminder that COVID-19, with its mutations and sub-strains, continues to be a threat; the White House also saw it as a chance to demonstrate progress in combating the disease.
Administration officials reminded people that Biden’s prognosis is strong because he’s received every vaccine dose for which he’s eligible, including two original shots and two boosters. He’s also being treated with Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to prevent more severe symptoms.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters at a briefing that he spoke with Biden over the phone and the president “sounded great.”
“He had been working all morning,” Jha said. “He hadn’t even been able to finish his breakfast because he had just been busy. I encouraged him to finish his breakfast.”
Biden’s physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, said in a letter that Biden had a runny nose and “fatigue, with an occasional dry cough, which started yesterday evening.” The president will isolate for five days and can return to his usual activities after a negative test, Jha said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the president's symptoms as "very mild" and said Biden had been in contact with staff members by phone and was participating in his planned meetings via phone and Zoom from the White House residence.
Asked where Biden might have contracted the virus, Jean-Pierre said, ”I don't think that matters." She added that the White House was more focused on how Biden was feeling and would engage in contact tracing.
The White House took steps to show that the president was busy working despite his diagnosis, with Biden tweeting out a picture of himself making calls from the Treaty Room of the White House.
The president spoke by phone to lawmakers in Pennsylvania to apologize for having to cancel his planned trip Thursday to the city of Wilkes-Barre to promote his crime prevention plans. He also called South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn to wish him a happy birthday and congratulate him on receiving an award from the NAACP. A planned fundraiser in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Committee on Thursday was postponed, according to a party official.
Dr. O'Connor wrote in his letter about the president's treatment plan: “I anticipate that he will respond favorably” to Paxlovid “as most maximally protected patients do.”
White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in a letter to White House staff obtained by The Associated Press that “all close contacts of the president” will be informed of the positive test in keeping with standard protocol.
First lady Jill Biden, speaking to reporters as she arrived for a school visit in Detroit, said she'd just gotten off the phone with her husband.
“He’s doing fine,” she said. "He’s feeling good.”
The first lady, who was wearing a mask, said she had tested negative earlier in the day. She planned to keep her full schedule in Michigan and Georgia on Thursday, while following masking and distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Michael LaRosa, her spokesperson.
The president returned from a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia overnight Saturday. White House officials had told reporters that Biden planned to minimize contact during the trip, yet as soon as he exited Air Force One on July 13, he was fist-bumping, handshaking and even was seen in an occasional hug. The CDC says symptoms can appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
Biden lad a light schedule after returning from Saudi Arabia, attending church on Sunday and helping to welcome Ukraine's first lady Olena Zelenska to the White House on Tuesday. The president traveled to Massachusetts on Wednesday to promote efforts to combat climate change.
Up to this point, Biden’s ability to avoid the virus seemed to defy the odds, even with the testing procedures in place for those expected to be in close contact with him. Prior waves of the virus swept through Washington’s political class, infecting Vice President Kamala Harris, Cabinet members, White House staffers and lawmakers. Biden has increasingly stepped up his travel schedule and resumed holding large indoor events where not everyone is tested.
A White House official said Harris tested negative for COVID-19. She was last with the president on Tuesday and spoke with him on the phone Thursday morning. Harris planned to remain masked on the guidance of the White House medical team. The vice president, the first lady and Klain, the chief of staff, were all deemed close contacts of Biden.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said “we’re in a very different place” than before vaccines and therapeutics were widespread.
“The coronavirus is everywhere, and your chance of getting it, even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, and even if you’ve already had it, are very high,” she said. “At the same time, it’s also true that for nearly everyone, the coronavirus has evolved from being a potential death sentence to something that we can live with.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hoped that Biden's positive test for the virus would cause more Americans to get vaccinated and boosted because "none of us is immune from it, including the president of the United States, and we really have to be careful.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter wished the president "a speedy recovery.”
Top White House officials in recent months have been matter-of-fact about the likelihood of the president getting COVID, a measure of how ingrained the virus has become in society — and of its diminished threat for those who are up to date on their vaccinations and with access to treatments.
When administered within five days of symptoms appearing, Paxlovid, produced by drugmaker Pfizer, has been proven to bring about a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.
Biden is far from the first world leader — and not the first U.S. president — to get the coronavirus, which has infected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and more than a dozen other leaders and high-ranking officials globally.
When Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, contracted the disease in October 2020, vaccines were not available and treatment options were limited and less advanced. After being diagnosed at the White House, Trump was given an experimental antibody treatment and steroids after his blood oxygen levels fell dangerously low. He was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days.
After more than two years and over a million deaths in the U.S., the virus is still killing an average of 353 people a day here, according to the CDC. The unvaccinated are at far greater risk, more than twice as likely to test positive and nine times as likely to die from the virus as those who have received at least a primary dose of the vaccines, according to the health agency.
The highly transmissible omicron variant is the dominant strain in the U.S., but scientists say it poses a lower risk for severe illness to those who are up to date on their vaccinations. Omicron's BA.5 sub-strain, believed to be even more contagious, now makes up more than 65% of U.S. cases.
Associated Press audio correspondent Shelley Adler and writers Seung Min Kim, Fatima Hussein and Mike Householder contributed to this report. Householder contributed from Detroit.
This story was first published on July 21, 2022. It was updated on July 22, 2022, to make clear that Leana Wen is a public health professor and a practicing physician.