Biden tests positive for Covid, but is ‘keeping busy’

The president is experiencing “very mild” symptoms and is isolating at the White House.

President Joe Biden tested positive for Covid, the White House said on Thursday, raising concerns about his immediate health and underscoring the pandemic’s persistent shadow over his presidency.

The White House said that Biden, who is fully vaccinated and doubly boosted, was experiencing “very mild” symptoms. He has also begun taking Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid. The drug, when taken within five days of symptoms appearing, has been found to reduce risk of hospitalization and death by nearly 90 percent among adults at highest risk of facing severe illness.

“Consistent with CDC guidelines, he will isolate at the White House and will continue to carry out all of his duties fully during that time,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. This isolation period will last at least five days, but the president will not return to normal activities until he’s received a negative antigen test, White House Covid response coordinator Ashish Jha said during Thursday’s press briefing, noting that the White House goes “beyond” CDC Covid guidance.

Biden took the PCR test as part of a routine screening program, Kevin C. O’Connor, the president’s physician, wrote in a letter.

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The president began experiencing mild symptoms, including a runny nose, fatigue and an occasional cough, on Wednesday evening, according to the doctor. He also reported having a restless sleep, Jha said, adding that Biden is breathing well with normal oxygen levels.

The exact timing of when Biden’s symptoms began is unclear, as his doctor suggested his cough and runny nose began Wednesday evening, while Jha said these symptoms began Thursday morning.

While taking Paxlovid, the president has halted his cholesterol medication and blood thinners — a normal practice when taking the antiviral medication, Jha confirmed. The White House doctor, as part of a plan formulated in case Biden tested positive, has been consulting with infectious disease experts at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and George Washington University.

“The President is fully vaccinated and twice-boosted, so I anticipate that he will respond favorably, as most maximally protected patients do,” the physician wrote.

The announcement arrived just before Biden was scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania for an event to discuss gun violence, as well as attend a Democratic fundraiser in the evening. It also comes just after Biden’s return from a trip to the Middle East and as the highly contagious BA.5 subvariant of the coronavirus has raised concerns about another wave of infections across the globe.

In his first tweet since testing positive, Biden lightheartedly reassured the public that he is “doing great” and thanked people for their concern.

“Keeping busy!” Biden wrote, referencing a phone call with Pennsylvania legislators in which he apologized for canceling a scheduled appearance on Thursday. He had planned to visit Scranton to propose a steep increase in police funding, The Associated Press reported.

Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative for Covid on Thursday morning, according to a White House official. She was last with Biden on Tuesday.

During a speech in Charlotte on Thursday afternoon, Harris said she had spoken with Biden on the phone earlier that morning.

“He is in good spirits. He is feeling well. He is doing well,” she said.

First lady Jill Biden tested negative for Covid on Thursday morning, according to her spokesperson Michael LaRosa. But because she is a close contact, she will follow CDC guidance on masking and distancing and planned to keep to her scheduled visits Thursday to Michigan and Georgia.

“I’m on the road in Detroit today, but I spoke to Joe earlier and he’s feeling fine, just experiencing a few mild symptoms,” she said in a tweet that also confirmed her negative result.

LaRosa later said the first lady would be staying in the family’s Wilmington, Del., home through Tuesday, while the president isolates at the White House.

“She will test more vigorously over the next couple days since she is a close contact,” LaRosa said.

It’s not clear where Biden contracted the virus, Jean-Pierre said on Thursday, but the White House medical unit has begun contact tracing to identify and notify anyone who would be considered a close contact of the president, as defined by the CDC.

The president returned from a trip to Massachusetts on Wednesday, where he came in contact with a multitude of people. Members of the Massachusetts delegation, including Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Jake Auchincloss, traveled with the president. Both Markey and Auchincloss tested negative on Thursday and will continue to test, while Warren will mask in public and test in five days per CDC guidance, according to the lawmakers’ spokespeople.

Biden joins a growing list of public officials who have tested positive for Covid in recent months, including his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, Harris, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland.

It will be crucial for the Biden administration to show that the president can perform his duties in the coming days, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview on MSNBC. The White House communications team did just that after Biden tested positive, posting updates about how he’s feeling and photos showing him working in the White House residence.

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“They’ve been preparing for this probably for several months now given the percentage of people in the country who have tested positive,” Psaki said. “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.”

A video of the president was posted to his Twitter account on Thursday afternoon. Biden was speaking on a balcony overlooking the White House lawn.

“I’m doing well. I’m getting a lot of work done — going to continue to get it done,” Biden said, noting his vaccination status and that he has mild symptoms. “In the meantime, thanks for your concern and keep the faith. It’s going to be OK.”

The announcement of his infection comes as the White House is trying to manage crises on multiple fronts. It also occurs as the administration has sought to project a new phase in the pandemic fight, one in which the country would learn to largely live with and manage the virus.

Roughly 126,000 new infections are being reported every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up roughly 26 percent from one month ago, and the highest total since mid-February. These numbers are widely understood to be an undercount due to the proliferation and ease of at-home testing, for those who test at all.

Case counts are still below the peak of the Delta surge last summer and well below Omicron’s winter wave, when as many as 1 million Americans were contracting Covid every day.

The White House has continued to aggressively push for Americans to either get vaccinated or get their booster shots — only one-third of eligible Americans have gotten their first booster. And there had been early concern within the West Wing that, were the president to become infected, it would give fodder to vaccine skeptics and Covid-mandate critics, as West Wing Playbook reported in January.

“If you’re over the age of 50, and you have not gotten a vaccine shot in the year of 2022, you need to go get one. You need to go get one now because it will dramatically improve your level of protection, reduce your risk of serious illness,” Jha said on Thursday.

The White House has also consistently battled outside concerns and commentary about Biden’s age and health. The president, 79, received a booster dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in September and a follow-up booster in late March. Though he has suffered various recent health ailments, his physician declared him “fit for duty” after a physical this past fall.

Data published by the CDC shows that third doses are at least 90 percent effective at keeping Americans infected by the Omicron variant out of the hospital. The extra shots are even more important for adults 50 and older.

While the risk of the president developing severe disease is significantly reduced because of his vaccination status, the protection isn’t bulletproof. Older adults are still at higher risk of developing severe Covid.

The president’s access to top medical care also lowers his risk of a severe bout of Covid. Harris also received the oral antiviral Paxlovid after testing positive.

The White House wouldn’t provide answers on what doctors would be looking for to determine whether the president should be hospitalized, with Jha and Jean-Pierre repeatedly saying they’d like to avoid “hypotheticals.”

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