WASHINGTON (AP) — COVID-19 symptoms left President Joe Biden with a deep, raspy voice and persistent cough as he met Friday via videoconference with his top economic team. But the president tried to strike a reassuring tone, declaring at the top, “I feel much better than I sound.”
Biden took off a mask and sipped water from a cup as he opened the meeting to discuss the decline in gas prices in recent weeks. Reporters were allowed into a White House auditorium where advisers were sitting to view a few minutes of the proceedings. When they asked how Biden was feeling, he flashed a thumb's up.
The White House said that its medical unit had informed 17 people during the contact tracing process, and none of those people have tested positive for COVID-19 to date. The White House also said that no members of the press have been included as those in close contact with the president.
The president's doctors said his mild COVID symptoms were improving and he was responding well to treatment, as the White House worked to portray the image of a president still on the job despite his illness. He received his presidential daily security briefing via video call while, separately, Chinese President Xi Jinping wished Biden a “speedy recovery.”
Biden had an elevated temperature of 99.4 F on Thursday, but that went down with Tylenol, according to a new note from Dr. Kevin O'Connor, the president's personal physician. Other metrics, such as pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation were normal, O'Connor said, although the White House did not release specific figures.
The president completed his first full day of Paxlovid, the antiviral therapy treatment meant to reduce the severity of COVID, and Biden's primary symptoms were a runny noise, fatigue and a loose cough, O'Connor said. Biden's voice was also deeper Friday morning.
But O'Connor emphasized that the president — who is fully vaccinated and twice boosted — continued to have a good prognosis.
“There has been nothing in the course of his illness thus far which gives me cause to alter that initial expectation," he wrote.
Once Biden tested positive Thursday — after more than two years of successfully dodging the virus — the White House sprung into action, aiming to turn his diagnosis into a “teachable moment” and dispel any notion of a crisis.
Those efforts continued Friday, when the White House released a photo of Biden, masked and tieless, in the Treaty Room of the president's residence, on the phone with his national security advisers. He was also scheduled to meet remotely with his economic team in a meeting focused on gas prices and then, separately, senior White House advisers to discuss legislative priorities.
It was 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.”
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 substrain is responsible for 78% of new COVID-19 infections reported in the U.S. last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest data released Tuesday.
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 chief of staff Ron Klain said he was too. Klain said the White House wasn’t aware of any positive COVID results 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.”
Dr. 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,” Wen 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 will 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.”