Biden’s bout with COVID shows progress made and pitfalls ahead

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

With more than 120,000 Americans testing positive on the average day, a single case of COVID-19 is hardly front-page news. Unless, of course, the infected person happens to be the president of the United States.

The White House announced on Saturday that President Biden had again tested positive for COVID in a rare case of “rebound” that can sometimes occur in people taking medication he had been given during the course of his treatment. Biden had returned to normal duties on Wednesday after spending several days in isolation following his initial positive test earlier this month. Though the president, who is 79, is in a high-risk group, he has avoided any serious complications and was healthy enough to work while isolating. The relative ease with which Biden has so far endured his case of COVID likely has to do with the fact that he’s received four total vaccine doses — a two-shot original course plus a pair of boosters — and that he took Paxlovid, an antiviral drug that has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

Biden’s experience with COVID is a stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Trump contracted the virus in fall of 2020, before the first vaccines were approved, and spent several days in the hospital after experiencing a dangerous drop in his blood oxygen levels. His doctors employed an aggressive course of treatment with the best tools available at the time, including an experimental antibody cocktail that wasn’t approved for public use. Subsequent news reports have suggested Trump was much sicker than publicly acknowledged and may have been facing life-threatening complications.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many commentators and medical experts, Biden’s comparatively smooth course of illness is a sign of the extraordinary progress the country has made against the coronavirus over the past two years. They argue that, while it would be better if no one got sick, Biden’s experience is a model of how things should work under the “new normal” of COVID: A once vulnerable person surrounded with several layers of protection that turn what could have been a severe illness into a minor illness.

Biden’s case, they say, is indicative of what the vast majority of COVID infections now look like, thanks to the widespread population-level immunity Americans have from vaccines and previous infections. As evidence, they point to data showing that daily COVID cases have more than quadrupled since late March while deaths have increased at a much smaller rate.

But others argue Biden’s infection paints a worrying picture of where the U.S. is at this point in the pandemic. The reality, they say, is that stagnant vaccination rates and limited access to antiviral treatments mean too many Americans are missing out on the types of protection that helped Biden fight off the virus. Some health experts argue that, as much as lawmakers might want to act like the pandemic emergency is over, COVID is still killing hundreds of people every day, and a lack of vigilance — both in behavior and in public policy — will only make things worse.

Perspectives

Optimists

Biden is showing the country that COVID can be managed safely

“Biden is back at work and carrying out all the duties of his office. That’s exactly as it should be. Thanks in large part to Biden’s leadership over the past two years, the United States has had so much success with vaccines and treatments that even when the president gets the virus, it’s business as usual.” — Leana S. Wen, Washington Post

Biden’s case shows there’s no need for heavy-handed COVID policies

“Americans have learned to live with the virus despite continuing risks because they have concluded that the costs of mandates, school closures and business shutdowns are too great.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Biden may have finally ended COVID alarmism for good

“For the leader of the free world, maybe this is a way of modeling, especially to those ZIP codes where people still wear masks on empty beaches, that it’s time to move on. We’ve reached the phase where a virus that shut down the world can now reach the Oval Office and not stop the presses or crash the markets.” — Nancy Gibbs, New York Times

Biden’s case is a sign of progress, but there’s still a long way to go

“Looking at the big picture, 2022 is a much better time to develop the disease than was 2020. …

[However] the sad truth about prediction models is that they are wonderful for anticipating how large groups of people will fare but can only deliver a ‘likelihood’ to the individual patient. And, as we have learned throughout the pandemic, a likelihood, though reassuring, is not the same as a promise.” — Kent Sepkowitz, CNN

Unlike Trump, Biden was protected by things that are available to everyone

“Although all presidents receive excellent medical treatment, Trump was given an experimental medicine that was not widely available at the time. Biden, on the other hand, is being treated with a drug that can be readily obtained at local pharmacies.” — Monique Brouillette, Scientific American

Skeptics

Lawmakers and the public are refusing to accept that COVID is still a health crisis

“If people admit COVID is still a big problem, they are implicitly giving regulators permission to control their lives once again. But people are tired of lockdowns, mandatory testing, canceled school sessions and travel restrictions. And so they are fighting back with the ultimate form of nonviolent resistance — forgetting about the issue altogether.” — Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

Biden’s cavalier approach to COVID sends the wrong message to Americans

“Politicians are public figures. They help set the tone of whether or not the country takes something seriously, and are by definition supposed to look beyond themselves. … If you’re less inclined to wear a mask and you don’t see the President, an elderly man, wearing one in indoor settings, or outside while COVID positive ... well, why should you feel like you have to wear a mask?” — Abdullah Shihipar, Slate

Treating COVID as an inevitability means inviting unnecessary suffering

“Biden’s policy has continued to focus mainly on getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted. Other policy options that could prevent spread … have largely been left to wither. … The result is an America where COVID keeps mutating, waves of disease keep coming and the populations of the most vulnerable remain isolated, trapped and dying.” — Maggie Koerth, FiveThirtyEight

Biden catching COVID is indicative of the complacency the country is mired in

“That the president’s infection happened now, during the nation’s roiling, months-long, multi-subvariant wave, speaks to the bad cycle that the country has found itself in. The current surge shows few signs of slowing; more iterations of the virus are undoubtedly on their way. And yet little is being done in response to the danger, let alone as a preventive to keep the situation from going further off the rails.” — Katherine J. Wu, Atlantic

Biden’s infection provides more fodder for dangerous misinformation about COVID

“For Fox’s hosts — and for much of the American right — Biden’s diagnosis was a moment to spike the football. Their glee was palpable. His diagnosis quickly became a metaphor for every argument from the fever swamps about both the president and the larger, years-long push to vaccinate the country against the virus. ... Here was delicious proof, at long last, that they had all been right all along.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images (3)

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