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Biden Contracts Covid as Pandemic Shows Its Staying Power

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 7/21/2022 Josh Wingrove and Justin Sink
Joe Biden © Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg Joe Biden

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday, finally contracting the virus whose control and ultimate defeat he had made a centerpiece of his campaign for the White House.

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Biden’s illness, coming after a five-day trip to the Middle East during which he made few efforts to avoid infection, highlights the endurance of a pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide and upturned the global economy.

Biden, 79, is experiencing mild symptoms and has begun taking Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid treatment for the disease, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in a memo to staff obtained by Bloomberg. He will isolate at the White House while continuing his duties via phone and Zoom until he tests negative.

“I’ve spoken to him several times this morning already about an array of matters, and he is focused on our pending business,” Klain wrote. 

“We have said for some time that there was a substantial possibility that the president -- like anyone else -- could get Covid, and we have prepared for this possibility,” he added. “We are now executing on our plan so that the president can continue to work seamlessly from the residence.”

Ashish Jha, the White House Covid response coordinator, said Biden’s “risk of serious illness is dramatically lower” because he’s fully vaccinated and has received two boosters. 

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Biden tweeted a video Thursday afternoon in which he said he was “doing well” and that his symptoms remained mild. He thanked the public for their concern and urged them to “keep the faith.”

The president returned this week from visiting Saudi Arabia and Israel, and traveled Wednesday to Massachusetts to promote executive actions he was undertaking to address climate change. Klain said the White House Medical Unit is identifying all of Biden’s close contacts and inform them of his infection. 

Lawmakers who traveled with him to Massachusetts included Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Representatives Jake Auchincloss and Bill Keating. A spokesman for Auchincloss tweeted that the congressman tested negative Thursday morning and was asymptomatic. 

Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative Thursday morning and was last with the president Tuesday, spokeswoman Kirsten Allen tweeted. Harris contracted Covid in April. 

First lady Jill Biden, who is visiting Detroit, tested negative for Covid Thursday morning, she tweeted, adding that she’d spoken to Biden “and he’s feeling fine, just experiencing a few mild symptoms.”

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Video: Biden tests positive for COVID, has mild symptoms (Reuters)

The president had planned to travel Thursday to Pennsylvania for a speech on gun safety and crime and a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

Biden is fully vaccinated and has received two booster shots. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House will provide a daily update on his condition until he recovers.

The White House has warned that the latest subvariant of the virus -- called BA.5 -- has an increased ability to evade immunity from prior infections and immunizations. Earlier this month, the White House said it was stepping up efforts to encourage vaccinations, including booster shots for those eligible.

But at the same time, Biden has more freely engaged in social and business activities without precautions such as masks or distancing. In recent weeks, he hosted large groups of lawmakers at the White House for a congressional picnic and an event to mark the passage of legislation intended to address a recent spate of mass shootings. During both events, the president mingled maskless in crowds.

Testing Threshold

Anyone in a small meeting with the president generally has to take a Covid-19 rapid test. Those who test negative are given a bright-colored bracelet. But the president has recently attended larger events where not all attendees are tested.

Before his trip to the Middle East, White House officials said Biden would be cautious as he met with foreign officials by avoiding handshakes and other intimate moments. But almost as soon as he stepped off the plane, Biden began greeting people warmly with handshakes and even embraces.

White House officials have previously said following the infection of top administration officials -- including Harris -- that it would not be surprising if Biden contracted the virus, even considering expanded safety protocols in place. 

But Biden’s aides have increasingly shrugged off the risk, saying privately that they were confident that if he contracted the disease, his case would be mild, thanks to his relative fitness, vaccinations and the availability of treatments.

One White House official said it was business as usual at the building on Thursday, with Biden participating in meetings by Zoom.

Biden tested positive first on an antigen test and then again on a PCR test, White House physician Kevin O’Connor said in a memo released by the White House.

His symptoms are mild and include a runny nose, fatigue, and an occasional dry cough, O’Connor said. The symptoms began to present on Wednesday evening.

O’Connor said that due to Biden’s vaccination status and Paxlovid regimen, he anticipated the president would “respond favorably, as most maximally protected patients do.”

When then-President Donald Trump contracted Covid in October 2020 -- before vaccines were available -- his treatment was extensive. He received a then-experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was hospitalized for three nights, he received both the steroid dexamethasone and Gilead Sciences Inc.’s infused antiviral drug remdesivir.

Biden has received four vaccine doses and is in generally good health for his age. The five-day course of Paxlovid has become the go-to treatment for keeping high risk people out of the hospital, despite reports that some people occasionally experience a temporary rebound in symptoms or positive test results.

Many other Group of Seven leaders contracted Covid-19 in the past two and a half years of the pandemic. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized and by his own admission almost died. That also was back in 2020, when the mortality rates were high, vaccines were unavailable and the disease was much less under control. French President Emmanuel Macron also had the virus in late 2020.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had Covid twice, including as recently as June, after he attended the Summit of the Americas hosted by Biden.

An estimated 562.7 million people worldwide have contracted Covid-19, resulting in 6.4 million deaths, according to World Health Organization statistics. The virus is still infecting almost 1 million people a day worldwide, without accounting for people who are infected and never tested.

In the US alone, 88.5 million people have gotten sick over the course of the pandemic, according to WHO. Infections have been on the rise in the US because of more transmissible omicron subvariants like BA.4 and BA.5.

(Updates with Klain memo in starting in third paragraph, Biden video in sixth paragraph)

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