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.”
Later Friday, White House officials told reporters that Biden was working more than eight hours a day. His appetite hadn’t diminished — with Biden showing off an empty plate with some crumbs when speaking with his advisers — and he signed bills into law and took part in his daily intelligence briefings, albeit via phone.
“He’s still doing the job of the president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “That does not end.”
It was all part of a diligently choreographed effort by the administration to depict a commander-in-chief who had not relinquished his day job, despite testing positive for COVID-19 Thursday and being sent into isolation at the White House residence.
As he beamed into a virtual meeting from the Treaty Room, Biden took off a mask and sipped water as he began discussing the decline in gas prices in recent weeks. Reporters were allowed to view a few minutes of the proceedings and, when they asked how Biden was feeling, he flashed a thumb’s up — although he was audibly hoarse and coughed a handful of times.
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. Biden received his presidential daily security briefing via a secured phone 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 nose, 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 and did not commit to doing so.
“The president right now feels well enough to continue working, and he has continued to work at a brisk pace,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters.
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 in-person work once he tests negative. As he works in isolation, the number of aides around Biden has been reduced to a “very, very small footprint,” Jean-Pierre said — including a videographer and photographer who captured the images of Biden in the residence.
Once Biden tested positive Thursday — after more than two years of successfully dodging the virus — the White House sprang 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 participated in 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.
Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre said 17 people were determined to have been in close contact with Biden when he might have been contagious, including members of his senior staff and at least one member of Congress. None have tested positive so far, she said.
One of Biden’s close contacts was first lady Jill Biden. Her spokesman Michael LaRosa said she tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday morning in Wilmington, Delaware, and hasn’t shown any symptoms. LaRosa said she’s spoken to the president “multiple times” as he remains in isolation.
Another close contact was Vice President Kamala Harris, who participated in a National Urban League luncheon Friday and was spotted hugging participants, although during the event, she was seated more than six feet from others. She was masked as she headed onto the stage but took it off during the luncheon.
The administration is trying 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.
Jha said, “This virus is going to be with us forever,” as he echoed Biden’s message that Americans get vaccinated and boosted.
The overall message was crafted to alleviate voters’ concerns about Biden’s health — at 79, he’s the oldest person ever to be president.
Jha said Friday that it'll likely take until 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.
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.
Still, the White House has declined to make O’Connor directly available to reporters, despite repeated requests.