WASHINGTON — COVID-19 symptoms left President Joe Biden with a raspy voice and cough as he met Friday via videoconference with his top economic team. But the president tried to strike a reassuring tone, declaring, “I feel much better than I sound.”
Biden took off a mask and sipped water as he opened the meeting to discuss the decline in gas prices in recent weeks. Reporters were allowed into a White House auditorium to view a few minutes of the proceedings, and when they asked how Biden was feeling, he flashed a thumb’s up.
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. Biden also used an inhaler a few times but hasn't experienced shortness of breath.
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. 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 is doing better," White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, who spoke to the president via video call, said during a Friday briefing with reporters. He noted that Biden was in a good mood, had slept well, ate a full breakfast and lunch and even showed off his empty plate, while joking that his only regret was that, despite being sick, “his appetite had not changed.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden told her he was working an “8-plus hours a day.” She said 17 people were determined to have been in close contact with Biden when he might have been contagious, including including members of his senior staff. None have tested positive, she said.
Jha said Biden will remain in isolation in the White House living quarters for five days and then be tested anew. He plans to return to work once he tests negative.
“He is getting world class treatment, exactly what you would expect," Jha said, while also noting that "All Americans have easy, free access to the same world class treatment that he’s getting.”
Once Biden tested positive Thursday — after more than two years of successfully dodging the virus — the White House sprung into action, aiming to dispel any notion of a crisis and to turn his diagnosis into what Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain said he hoped would be a “teachable moment.”
The White House released a photo Friday of Biden, masked and tieless, in the Treaty Room of the president's residence, on the phone with his national security advisers. After the economic team meeting, he was planning a separate discussion with senior White House advisers to discuss legislative priorities. Jha said his hoarse voice might actually be a sign that he is improving rather than the alternative.
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 wasn't always easy, though.
In the two briefings since the president's diagnosis, Jean-Pierre has repeatedly parried with reporters over specifics. When pressed about where Biden might have contracted the virus, she responded on Thursday, “I don’t think that that matters, right? I think what matters is we prepared for this moment.”
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 that, “This virus is going to be with us forever.”
Biden’s case is being prioritized, and Jha said Friday that it'll likely be next 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.
First lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris were also in close contact with Biden, and Klain said he was too, but the White House hasn't released the names of the others, citing privacy concerns.
Jean-Pierre has repeatedly 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.
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.