Biden’s fight with covid tests his back-to-normal strategy

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The Biden administration’s refrain that Americans fully vaccinated and fortified against the coronavirus could safely resume their lives is now being tested on the first patient, the 79-year-old free world leader, who on Thursday made a point of publicly working on his illness.

“My friends, I am very well,” said President Biden tweeted after the White House announced his infection, sharing a photo of him behind his desk. “Stay busy!”

If Biden emerges quickly from his fight against covid-19, it will be a high-profile demonstration of his larger wish: a return to normalcy is possible through vaccines and treatments, despite the upsurge in cases and the ongoing pandemic. But if the president were to be ill for a long time or, worse, become seriously ill, he would join many other Americans who have struggled to stay healthy in a world with little mask-wearing and social distancing, and fueling fresh criticism that his viral strategy is failing, especially for the most vulnerable.

“I think Biden’s own covid response is what made this [illness] inevitable, really,” said Artie Vierkant, co-host of “Death Panel,” a left-leaning podcast that has criticized the administration for not pursuing a universal mask mandate and paid sick leave for HIV-positive people in coronavirus, among other mitigation measures. “He is just one of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going to test positive for covid today.”

Others see his illness as a function of a highly contagious virus, as Americans weigh the trade-offs of social gatherings, wearing masks and other decisions against the prospect of getting sick.

“I think the president’s case says more about covid than it does about White House strategy — it’s surprisingly contagious,” countered Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden added that vaccines remain “surprisingly effective” at preventing serious illness and praised the decision to prescribe paxlovid, an antiviral pill, to reduce the chances of Biden developing complications.

“It also says a lot about where we are in the pandemic,” Frieden said. “We are adapting to covid, and as new variants emerge, we may need to adapt again.”

In interviews, tweets and comments, White House officials stressed their strategy prepared them for the president to test positive, with covid coordinator Ashish Jha telling reporters he wanted to ‘mark this moment’ — in which Biden builds on medical breakthroughs that are widely available to the general public.

“It’s a reminder of why we’re all working so hard to make sure every American has the same level of protection as the president, every American has the same level of immunity, and why we’ve worked so hard. to make sure people have access to life-saving treatments like paxlovid,” Jha said during a briefing.

“These are incredibly important things for the president. These are incredibly important things that every American must have.

Jha declined to answer questions about Biden’s prognosis, saying he wanted to “avoid speculation.”

But details of Biden’s infection and treatment, made public Thursday, were immediately scrutinized by doctors, epidemiologists and other experts, some of whom questioned why the president was so often maskless in close conversations. with others who had been worried about his risk for a long time. – transportation covid. And as they pondered early reports of the nation’s highest-profile covid case, some criticized the White House for downplaying the risks to the president, rather than highlighting the ongoing toll of the sickness. The virus kills more than 400 people a day, according to the Washington Post’s seven-day average.

“I think now is the time to reckon with high transmission and we should aspire to a better normal than this,” said Julia Raifman, a professor of public health at Boston University, who called for federal support for mask mandates, holding more outdoor gatherings. , and other mitigation measures. “We have already lost over 500,000 people to covid during this administration. … This is an opportunity not to minimize or exaggerate the president’s infection – and to recognize that it is a serious illness for people over 70.

Experts have also stressed that Biden’s case is being treated with a level of caution that they say should be standard for all Americans.

For example, the White House said Biden would remain in isolation until he tested negative for the virus, going beyond CDC guidelines — a move that sparked a backlash from some experts who have wondered why not all Americans are asked to do the same.

“The fact that they override CDC recommendations that are flawed, with no evidence to back them up, is telling,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “For all of us, not just the president.”

Topol and others have called on all Americans to test negative before leaving isolation, saying the CDC’s failure to recommend such a test result means many Americans are leaving isolation prematurely and infecting others.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who has advised the White House on covid strategy and has repeatedly called on officials to go further, said he wishes the administration had pushed for measures more aggressively. such as improving indoor air quality, but said Biden has met widespread resistance to many of the recommendations.

“What I want the public to do, and what the public will be do, are two different things,” Emanuel said.

He added that Biden’s infection, despite the use of testing, screening and mask-wearing around him for indoor meetings, underscored that “BA.5 is truly contagious. He’s probably the person in America with the best protections. No one can be sure that he will not be infected.

While Biden is the second president to test positive for the virus, the circumstances are very different from those of his predecessor, at least so far. When Donald Trump tested positive in late 2020, before vaccines were ready, he had to be hospitalized and aides feared he might die. He had access to antiviral drugs that were not yet authorized by regulators.

By contrast, Biden’s positive test comes after he received two initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and two booster shots, reducing the risk of serious illness, and also after a slew of senior government officials administration have tested positive – including 81-year-old Anthony S. Fauci, who suffered an infection this summer and returned to work.

“We have been saying for some time that there was a substantial possibility that the President – ​​like anyone else – could contract COVID,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote Thursday. Klain also took to Twitter to share comments that Biden was right to embrace an increasingly visible public role, after spending much of the first year of his presidency physically distant from others.

“Would the country have been better off if Biden had remained extremely physically isolated from others, avoided travel, etc., at the [Russian President Vladimir] Cheese fries ? asked journalist Nate Silver, in a tweet amplified by Klain. “I tend not to think so.”

This public role built on the White House’s vaccine-focused strategy, with Biden initially echoing claims by public health experts that vaccines also protect against infections — a claim that a new delta variant of the era would turn heads last summer.

“You’re not going to get covid if you have these vaccines,” Biden said on July 21, 2021, in a town hall in Les actualites — a year to the day before the president himself tested positive.

Asked this week what to do about the rising number of cases in the country, the president answered in two words: Get vaccinated.

“We have the ability to control it,” Biden said Wednesday, adding a message for the holdouts. “They should get vaccinated now.”

Experts such as Boston University’s Raifman say the White House has remained too focused on vaccinations, even as variants have evolved to dodge some protections — and not enough on mitigations such as social distancing and wearing face masks. mask.

“It all started with a premature ‘return to normal’ [declaration] which we then didn’t correct when there was a delta surge, or when there was an omicron surge,” Raifman said, referring to a White House celebration last summer. “I’m very concerned about not re-correcting on new variants,” she added.

Beatrice Adler-Bolton, who co-hosts the podcast with Vierkant and who is immunocompromised, said she was concerned about the message from the White House that the president was working on his illness – especially after his own infection left him last winter left her with complications for three months. .

“It contributes to this idea that we’re living in a time when covid is no longer disruptive, which obviously doesn’t align with a lot of the day-to-day experiences of workers diagnosed with covid,” she said.

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