Most of the time, President Biden doesn’t wear a mask, but occasionally he’s spotted with one. Sometimes his events are in crowded indoor rooms, other times outdoors.
And through it all over the past two weeks, people close to Biden — if not in “close contact” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are contracting COVID as part of a wave washing over parts of official Washington.
The White House approach appears somewhat haphazard, at times taking care to go beyond CDC guidelines and at others walking up to the edge of what’s recommended. And at least once in the last two weeks, he publicly disregarded his public health agency’s advice while visiting Poland.
The president has been spared COVID– so far. He is fully vaccinated and has been boosted twice, but he’s nearly 80 years old, putting him at higher risk for a severe case of the disease. And his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, announced Thursday that she tested positive.
Should Biden contract COVID, there would likely be an immediate economic and political shock. And there could be a political price to pay for the president who staked his campaign on keeping America safe from the pandemic.
“If the president contracts the virus, it’s going to be a big deal,” said Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University. “And there is this small but real risk of needing to be hospitalized or worse.”
White House aides acknowledge that Biden could become infected. “I do think it is important to note it is possible he will test positive for COVID at some point,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said Friday on CNN’s “New Day.” “The president is vaccinated and double boosted, and so protected from severe COVID. We take every precaution to ensure that we keep him safe.”
Navigating this new phase of the pandemic is tricky. Biden wants to show Americans they can get back to a normal life which inevitably involves taking more risks — which in turn potentially puts the president in the path of the pathogen.
The CDC has also stopped emphasizing its map of transmission levels, which labels Washington as “high transmission” for the coronavirus. Instead, the public health agency suggests relying on data that includes hospitalizations, which are low in D.C. But that shift masks the COVID risk, health experts say, potentially making people feel overconfident about attending crowded gatherings.
Over the past two weeks, Biden has had at least 18 events where he has interacted with members of the public. including Biden walking around in a crowded mess hall in Rzeszów, Poland, to buck up U.S. troops. That put him unmasked and indoors in a country that the CDC warns Americans to avoid and recommends those traveling to wear masks at all times indoors.
Biden also headlined a packed celebration in the East Room where he pulled close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and invited her back Wednesday for a bill-signing ceremony. Pelosi announced Thursday that she tested positive for the coronavirus.
Eleven of Biden’s recent events have been indoors — typically, but not always, the smaller ones. Seven have been outside. One — a packed celebration of the Affordable Care Act featuring former president Barack Obama — was initially set to be outside but moved indoors amid poor weather in Washington. Obama had COVID in mid-March.
So far, all of the publicly announced cases among lawmakers and top government officials in Washington have reportedly been mild. Democratic leaders have wholeheartedly embraced vaccines, boosters and even second boosters, providing them protections even as many of them have dropped masking and social distancing. The Biden administration has argued that even though the virus continues to circulate, most people who avail themselves of vaccines, boosters and newly available antiviral medications are protected from serious disease.
“They haven’t fallen ill — they’ve been infected. And I think we need to distinguish infection from disease,” said Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, pointing to the relatively mild symptoms among the politicians, at least so far. “It underlines the value of the vaccines.”
When the last month is taken into account, Biden has come in contact with at least four people who tested positive either shortly after, or right before, interacting with him. The White House says that Biden tests regularly and they have said they will disclose a positive test if he has one. Also, they say, anyone who will be meeting with Biden, Vice President Harris or their spouses must test beforehand.
Some physicians panned the White House for not taking more protections before holding events with the president, saying that even when the administration has technically followed CDC guidance, the policies may be inadequate to protect a nearly 80-year-old Biden.
“There were clear ways to make this safer, which should have been done,” said Abraar Karan, an infectious-disease physician at Stanford University. “One thing people need to realize is that the more potentially infectious hosts that are gathered at a single indoor event, the higher the chance of an outbreak as it only takes one person.”
And though masking rules at the White House have been dropped, on at least two occasions, Biden has been spotted being extra cautious by wearing a mask on the grounds of the White House, covering his face before holding events in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building’s indoor auditorium
The president was not among the 630 guests to attend Saturday’s Gridiron dinner in Washington, a white-tie gala that featured five members of his Cabinet and the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Two Cabinet secretaries, a senator, two members of Congress and a handful of White House aides were among the 53 guests who reported testing positive by late Friday. At least 10 of the cases were clustered at two neighboring tables.
Biden has been invited to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner later this month, an annual black-tie gathering held in a grand ballroom at the Washington Hilton. More than 2,600 guests are expected, and the president typically mingles at a smaller VIP reception ahead of his speech. The White House has not confirmed if he’s attending.
A same-day negative coronavirus test is necessary to attend the dinner; the Gridiron affair did not have such a requirement. But there will be no vaccine mandate at the larger dinner.
Events that large can be held safely, some experts say. Biden on Wednesday gave a speech to the North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference in the same venue, addressing about 2,500 unmasked delegates crowded into the Hilton ballroom.
Union leaders who came in contact with Biden had to be tested that morning, organizers said. And the union required attendees to be vaccinated. So far, none of the union participants have reported cases of COVID, organizers said.
Still, the risks are piling up.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before the president and/or the vice president contract the virus,” Reiner said, adding that the White House is almost anticipating it. “But better for an 80-year-old man not to acquire this virus.”
Biden came into contact with Pelosi at least twice shortly before she announced her COVID diagnosis Thursday. The pair embraced briefly at the Obama fete on Tuesday. (Pelosi didn’t attend the Gridiron dinner.)
The second contact came Wednesday afternoon, when Pelosi was invited back to the White House to watch as Biden signed into law the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022. She stood over him, and the two spoke briefly. Biden momentarily laid his hand on her wrist as he said something to her.
The White House noted that Biden was never within six feet of Pelosi for more than 15 minutes, which is the CDC’s definition of a close contact that triggers a 10-day masking recommendation. His aides gave the same response after a series of others who Biden interacted with also came down with COVID, including White House press secretary Jen Psaki, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin.
But health officials say the 15-minute rule is outdated.
“All of those sorts of guidelines were based on the original coronavirus variant. The variants that are circulating now are much more transmissible than that,” Reiner said. “And the suggestion that you could be in the unmasked presence of somebody for 10 minutes, and that somehow is not a significant exposure is kind of laughable.”
The White House says it follows CDC protocols, which in late February were adjusted to say that masking and social distancing are not required in places with a low burden of COVID disease in a community. The agency has defended its change by saying the new protocols better reflect community risks after vaccines, treatments and infections have defanged the virus for many people.
“We wanted to make sure that we were focusing on severe disease because we do want to prevent severe disease. We want to prevent hospitalizations. We want to prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in February.
But the shift has alarmed some advocates, who say the new CDC guidance hides the true risks to individuals. For instance, while Walensky on Friday touted a map that the “community level” of COVID is low in D.C., the agency also says that the city is still facing “high transmission” of the virus.
Many of Biden’s meetings are socially distanced anyway, according to White House aides. And other layers of protection are added. For example, an aide who contracts COVID can go back to work after a period of isolation if they don’t have symptoms but are still testing positive, according to the CDC. Not so at the White House, where aides must test negative to go back to work.
Another concern among health experts is that the risks Biden is taking are mitigated by a health care safety net that many Americans can’t access, particularly as clinics wind down access to free vaccines and treatments for uninsured Americans.
“The senators and policymakers who are getting sick have a lot of privileges that are helping them through this,” said Julia Raifman, a Boston University public health professor, noting access to frequent testing. “They’re reducing onward transmission to people they love who maybe are at risk. I presume they have access to the best medical care in the world and the best treatments.”