WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, the oldest person to ever hold the office, tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday, but said his symptoms were mild and credited vaccines and booster shots with keeping him healthy.
Biden is “experiencing very mild symptoms” of COVID-19 and has begun taking Paxlovid, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “Consistent with (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, he will isolate at the White House and will continue to carry out all of his duties fully during that time.”
Early Thursday afternoon, the White House tweeted a photo of Biden seated at a desk, making calls from the residence. “Folks, I’m doing great. Thanks for your concern,” the tweet read. “Keeping busy!” Another tweet included a video of Biden standing on the Truman Balcony and describing his relief at having been vaccinated and boosted.
“I’m doing well, getting a lot of work done,” Biden says in the video. “In the meantime, thanks for your concern. And keep the faith — it’s going to be OK.”
A COVID-19 diagnosis for any 79-year-old is cause for concern, but Biden’s vaccination status may help him avoid serious complications. He received a fourth vaccine dose on March 30 and was found to be in good health during his annual physical last November.
According to a letter from the president’s doctor released by the White House, Biden tested positive first on an antigen test and had his diagnosis confirmed by a subsequent PCR test. His symptoms were a runny nose, fatigue and “an occasional dry cough that started (Wednesday) evening.”
“The president is fully vaccinated and twice-boosted, so I anticipate he will respond favorably, as most maximally protected patients do,” Dr. Kevin C. O’Connor, the White House physician, wrote.
The White House scrubbed Biden’s schedule for the next five days. Prior to his positive test, the president had planned to travel to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia on Thursday before continuing on to his home in Wilmington for the weekend. Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative on Thursday, her office said. She last spent time with Biden on Tuesday and planned to continue with her scheduled events.
The president’s positive test comes amid a rise in cases nationally due to the highly contagious BA.5 variant and after a wave of high-profile COVID-19 diagnoses in Washington, as Cabinet members, senior aides and lawmakers have all contracted the virus. According to the CDC, the seven-day average of new cases increased 15.7% in the last week, while the rate of hospitalizations also rose by 14.4%.
“Because the president is fully vaccinated, double-boosted, his risk of serious illness is dramatically lower,” said Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, during the daily briefing. Biden, he added, “is breathing well. His oxygen level is normal.”
Aware of the public’s fatigue with mask mandates and other public health directives, Biden has sought to convince the nation that the resumption of normal — and unmasked — gatherings is fine as long as people have been vaccinated, while urging Congress to approve additional funding to ensure that vaccines and test kits remain available.
Jha, however, noted the contagiousness of the latest variants and urged the country to get vaccinated. “If you are over the age of 50 and you’ve not gotten a vaccine shot in the year 2022, you need to go get one,” he said.
The White House wouldn’t speculate on where Biden may have gotten infected. “I don’t think that matters,” Jean-Pierre said, stating that the administration had long prepared for a scenario where Biden contracted the coronavirus.
Biden’s diagnosis comes just days after he returned from a five-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia and less than 24 hours after he flew with a number of lawmakers and aides to Somerset, Massachusetts, for a speech Wednesday on the need to combat climate change. The lawmakers who were with Biden aboard Air Force One included Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass. The president also spent nearly 30 minutes chatting with John F. Kerry, his climate adviser, before heading to the airport after his event.
Biden called those individuals who traveled with him and may have been exposed, Jean-Pierre said.
On returning to Washington, the president took questions from reporters traveling with him and was asked about the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections and what the country should be doing.
“Getting vaccinated,” he replied. When a reporter, standing just a foot away from Biden, asked what he’d say to those who continue to refuse to get vaccinated, he said, “They’ve got a problem. ... It’s not in their interest or the public’s interest not to get vaccinated. We have the capacity to control it. They should get vaccinated now.”
First lady Jill Biden, despite being in close contact with the president, tested negative Thursday morning and kept her schedule, traveling to Detroit. She told reporters with her there that she’d spoken to the president. “He’s doing fine. He’s doing good,” she said.
Biden’s positive test is also a reminder of how difficult it can be to eliminate the potential for infection, even for someone as protected as the president. Everyone who travels or meets with Biden must be tested beforehand, according to the White House, and masks are required in the building.
Former President Donald Trump, whose White House was much more lax about coronavirus mitigation practices such as wearing masks, also contracted the virus while he was in office.
Trump became severely ill. He was given oxygen and an experimental antibody treatment, and he was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days.