Biden’s long-anticipated, heavily-planned-for, how-has-it-not-happened-yet Covid infection turned the White House residence briefly into a sick ward for a single, high-profile patient who aides said spent the weekend going stir crazy from the isolation.
His wife decamped for Delaware, bringing with her their new shorthair tabby. Staffing inside the executive mansion was reduced to the most essential personnel, whom Biden fretted might contract the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus that likely infected him.
And even the cart of video equipment wheeled into the second-floor Treaty Room, phone calls from his grandkids and a stack of books about Ireland couldn’t prevent the cabin fever from setting in.
“I’m only a couple hundred yards away,” Biden told visitors from South Korea on Tuesday, who listened to him speaking on a screen in the Roosevelt Room. “I could look out from the balcony and holler to you!”
When the meeting concluded, he took off his jacket and stepped onto the Truman Balcony to do just that.
By Tuesday, Biden was feeling well enough to resume working out in the White House gym – a daily routine he’d foregone during his convalescence. Instead of waking up to exercise, his German Shepherd, Commander, served as his alarm clock on Monday when – in the first lady’s absence – he nudged the commander-in-chief awake just before 7 a.m.
“My wife’s not here,” Biden explained a few hours later. “She usually takes him out in the morning while I’m upstairs working out.”
By Wednesday, Biden had tested negative on two antigen tests and was allowed to break out of his isolation, though he’ll have to wear a mask for 10 days. His first stop: The White House Rose Garden to speak about his experience with the disease.
Long viewed as something of an inevitability, Biden’s bout with Covid has nonetheless marked a turning point. Some on Biden’s team expressed quiet relief that what nearly everyone expected would come to pass finally did – without, for now, any major health complications.
For a White House whose operations were designed – from its earliest days – to prevent the septuagenarian commander-in-chief from getting sick, Biden’s aides saw the illness as a sign that even the most protected person can come down with Covid and be just fine.
Early in his tenure, Biden’s meetings were held with the smallest groups of officials possible, all of whom wore color-coordinated wristbands to indicate they’d been tested for coronavirus that day. Masks were required everywhere on the White House grounds in the first months of Biden’s administration. Travel outside Washington was rare.
So restricted was the President’s inner circle that when a long string of Washington officials – including the vice president, secretary of state, attorney general, House speaker and several senior-level Biden aides, including the press secretary and national security adviser – tested positive, none were determined to have been in “close contact” with Biden.
Concerns about the President contracting Covid were partly rooted in his age; at 79, he is at higher risk for severe disease. But some Democrats also wondered how getting sick might affect Biden’s political standing, given the increasingly frequent questions about whether he will be too old to serve a second term.
Yet life in the bubble did not suit Biden, who chafed at the limitations placed on a job he’d been seeking for the previous four decades. Trappings like state dinners and medal ceremonies were put on hold. And perhaps most galling for the famously tactile President, visitors were rare.
The restrictions began to ease as vaccinations became available and the virus started to wane. Even episodes of variant-propelled resurgence did not prevent Biden from beginning to live more loosely.
The day before he tested positive, Biden flew back and forth to Massachusetts for a speech on climate change. Photos from aboard Air Force One showed he wasn’t wearing a mask as he engaged with lawmakers who were invited on the trip.
He shook hands before and after the event, though didn’t linger for long given the blistering sun and high temperatures. But that was an exception; as he begins to travel more across the country, Biden has spent as much as 45 minutes greeting audiences with handshakes and hugs after his speeches.
By the time he’d returned to the White House Wednesday evening, however, he began to feel fatigued. One restless night and two tests later, Biden became the second sitting US president to test positive for Covid.
His symptoms – runny nose, sore throat, elevated temperature, body aches – were all deemed mild, which the White House attributed to his four doses of vaccine. But the rules were still the rules, and Biden entered the required period of isolation as his team began executing a plan they’d had in place for months, beginning with a swift public announcement.
Many White House staffers only learned from that disclosure the President had Covid.
“We have said for some time that there was a substantial possibility that the President – like anyone else – could get Covid, and we have prepared for this possibility. We are now executing on our plan so that the President can continue to work seamlessly from the residence,” chief of staff Ron Klain wrote in a memo to staff a few hours after the initial statement.
Facing reporters this week, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was joined by the White House Covid response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, instead of the doctor who actually tended to Biden. Jha, who had not examined the President, had FaceTimed with him throughout the course of his illness and received updates from the presidential physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor.
Reporters protested not being allowed to directly question O’Connor. Jha said neither Biden nor O’Connor had explicitly decided against having O’Connor deliver the briefings himself.
O’Connor, a retired Army colonel who has treated Biden for several years, is not a seasoned presence on television or during public question-and-answer sessions, one official said. He has a loose, joking manner with Biden and other top officials – sometimes using humor to cut through serious moments, including when Biden’s son Beau was diagnosed with cancer – but doesn’t normally engage with the press.
However, Jha regularly appeared as a medical commentator on Covid before joining the White House earlier this year.
During former President Donald Trump’s bout with Covid in 2020, then-White House physician Dr. Sean Conley briefed reporters from the steps of Walter Reed National Medical Center, where Trump was hospitalized.
Conley, it was later learned, obscured the severity of Trump’s disease during his briefings. Only when the former chief of staff Mark Meadows published his White House memoir did it emerge Trump’s oxygen level fell to about 86% – dangerously below the normal level.
O’Connor, in daily written updates distributed by the White House press office, has not disclosed Biden’s oxygenation rate beyond saying his “oxygen saturation continues to be excellent on room air.” He has also described Biden’s pulse, blood pressure and respiratory rates as “normal” without disclosing any numbers.
White House officials said those vital signs were being recorded throughout the course of the day, and that they never diverged from normal levels. And they argued that because the President’s symptoms were mild, their level of transparency was appropriate.
“We have provided, I think, an extraordinary amount of transparency about his care: When he tested positive; how he’s done each day; the evolving nature of his symptoms: is his runny nose a little worse, a little bit better?” Jha told reporters Monday. “Like, we’ve been very, very open and transparent with all of that data.”
The White House was forced to cancel a string of events out of town, including a political rally in Tampa, Florida, that had been viewed as a debut of sorts for the President’s upcoming midterm message.
A speech to a group of Black law enforcement executives that Biden had planned to deliver in-person in Orlando went virtual instead. He used the address to accuse his predecessor of cowardice during the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, a declaration that aides once hoped he would deliver to a crowded and supportive audience.
Instead, Biden taped the speech from the Treaty Room, where he’d spent much of his days in isolation. The video released by the White House on Monday was edited in several places as Biden continued to shake his cough.
By Tuesday, however, Biden’s voice had mostly lost its rasp.
“I hope I look as great as I feel,” Biden told a group over video conference. “I never look that good. I hope I look as good as I usually do, which is not that good.”