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President Biden has tested positive for COVID-19

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden tested positive for the coronavirus this morning. The White House says he has mild COVID symptoms. This afternoon he shared a video message on Twitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Hey, folks - guess you heard this morning I tested positive for COVID. But I've been double-vaccinated, double-boosted. Symptoms are mild. And I really appreciate your inquiry and your concerns.

SUMMERS: We're going to talk about the president's condition and what his diagnosis means with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hi to both of you.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: Tam, let's start off with you. What can you tell us about the president's condition?

KEITH: Well, according to a letter from his physician, he has a runny nose, fatigue and a dry cough. Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator, who is not the president's doctor, briefed the press after speaking with both Biden and his physician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHISH JHA: He is breathing well. His oxygen level is normal. And he's - you know, I was going to say resting comfortably. He's actually not resting comfortably. He's working comfortably in his residence.

KEITH: So he's making calls and, along with his team, putting out social media posts to show that he really is doing fine. Biden has started a course of Paxlovid, which is a treatment shown to dramatically reduce the chances of severe outcomes from COVID, outcomes like hospitalization and death.

SUMMERS: OK. Selena, Tam mentioned that the president is taking Paxlovid, the antiviral that is used to treat COVID. What do we know about COVID risks for someone like President Biden?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the president is 79 years old. He's in fairly good health. He takes a few prescription medications, including for high cholesterol. And as we said, he's had four shots against COVID-19. His most recent booster was in March. The infectious disease doctors I spoke with today say the most concerning thing in terms of his prognosis is his age. Throughout the pandemic, people older than 75 have had more severe outcomes. But they also say he has a really good chance of doing well given how much vaccine protection he has and how quickly he got started on that antiviral medication. Dr. Scott Roberts is an infectious disease physician at Yale.

SCOTT ROBERTS: Fortunately, this has been caught very early in the disease course, and he was able to start Paxlovid, really, right away. And most of these antivirals, the sooner you can start them in the disease course, the better, really just to knock down levels of the virus before they get super high.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But Roberts also notes it's early. It'll probably become much more clear in the next few days where this is going.

SUMMERS: Tam, tell us what you know about the timeline. Do you have any sense of where the president may have picked up COVID?

KEITH: Well, like so many Americans living their lives and picking up COVID along the way, it is not entirely clear. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that he hadn't had any close contact exposures that they know of, but he was traveling. Last week, he was in the Mideast, and he really wasn't seen wearing a mask in public. There were handshakes and hugs, at least one fist bump. He kept a low profile for a couple of days after getting back from the trip. He tested negative for COVID on Tuesday, according to the White House, and then yesterday, he traveled to Massachusetts. White House officials insist he felt fine yesterday but was tired last night and then after testing positive this morning, told his doctor about the runny nose and the fatigue and cough.

SUMMERS: OK. Selena, President Biden is not the first president to test positive for the coronavirus. As we recalled, President Trump tested positive in October of 2020. But this is a really different moment in the pandemic, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, totally. It's true that Trump's diagnosis came before any vaccines were available. There was no Paxlovid. Trump became quite sick. If you remember, he was taken to Walter Reed. He needed oxygen. So now there are vaccines, there are effective treatments and cheap, rapid at-home tests. And it is a very different stage in the pandemic. Another difference is the variant that's circulating. Biden's virus sample is actually being sequenced right now, but the sources I talked to say there is a very good chance it is BA.5, and that is the new subvariant of omicron that accounts for the majority of cases in the U.S. Here's Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist and physician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

DAVID DOWDY: Transmission levels right now are as high as they ever been, except this past winter. So it's not surprising that the president or anyone else is getting infected right now. There is not any evidence right now that these infections are any more severe than those caused by the previous variants.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So all the physicians I spoke with today say all of these things make Biden's situation a lot less concerning than Trump's was when he tested positive in 2020.

SUMMERS: Tam, the White House has said that President Biden will isolate beyond CDC guidelines, so until he tests negative. But what does that look like when you're the president of the United States?

KEITH: Right. So he's going to isolate in the residence, and they say that he won't return to his West Wing office until he tests negative on a rapid test. Other contact tracing - the vice president last saw him on Tuesday, and she has tested negative. First lady Jill Biden's spokesman told me that she tested negative this morning and will spend the weekend at the family's home in Wilmington, Del., which had been the plan all along, even before this. And, of course, the president was supposed to join her there. That's not happening now. We've been told to expect that the president's doctor will release daily status updates on his condition as the course of the disease continues.

SUMMERS: All right, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.