Biden illness shows importance of vaccines, boosters

Just four days after testing positive for COVID-19, President Biden met virtually with administration officials, labor leaders and business executives on legislation to boost the domestic semiconductor industry on Monday afternoon.  

His voice a bit raspy, Biden told reporters he is feeling “great” and hoped to be back to work in person by the end of the week.  

Biden’s public appearance — his second since testing positive last Thursday — sent a signal to Americans that a 79-year-old person who contracts the virus can weather the sickness relatively easily because of vaccines and booster doses. 

The announcement of the president’s case initially put Washington on edge last week, but it’s turned into a new opportunity for the White House to stress the importance of boosters and antiviral treatments as the country fights the highly transmissible BA.5 variant. 

Biden is at risk for serious illness due to his age, but that is counteracted by the fact he is up-to-date with his vaccinations — he received his second booster dose in March — and is taking an antiviral treatment known as Paxlovid.  

“They can use the president as a case,” said Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He’s using all these tools.” 

Scenes across the United States show that Americans, fatigued by the pandemic, have returned to normal life.  

But the country has fallen short in convincing Americans eligible for shots to get vaccinated. About 21 percent of the U.S. population has yet to receive a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine and less than half of fully vaccinated Americans have received their first booster dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

“We are where we are because we’re not adequately as a nation using the tools out there,” said Parekh.  

Health experts say the new BA.5 variant, which currently makes up the majority of cases in the U.S. including Biden’s, adds more urgency. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said that he hoped Biden’s diagnosis would spur Americans and particularly those over 50 to “get all the doses they can.” 

Biden’s case has been a sober reminder that the pandemic is not over. But at the same time, it’s also a sign of the progress the world has made since the first known case of COVID-19 in 2019.  

When former President Trump contracted the virus almost two years ago, there were no approved vaccines. The antiviral pill Paxlovid was more than a year from being authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.  

“The science tells us he’s done so much better than his predecessor Donald Trump precisely because we’ve made such enormous progress with COVID, but we’ve made that progress only for those who are fully vaccinated and boosted and are quick off the trigger to get Paxlovid or another effective treatment,” said Larry Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University.  

White House officials have already used public appearances in the briefing room and television interviews to invoke Biden’s case in exhorting Americans to take advantage of the vaccines and treatments available in the U.S.  

“If every American availed themselves to the protections that the president has gotten, which are available to every American, then yes, this would be a much different disease. That’s not where we are and we continue to work to make that a reality,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha said on “Fox News Sunday.”  

To be sure, it’s a daunting task to convince those who haven’t yet gotten vaccinated or received a booster shot to do so.  

The administration has struggled to convince the slice of the public resistant to the vaccine to get vaccinated, and its sweeping federal vaccine mandates encountered legal impediments. 

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from April, 17 percent of American adults say they definitely will not get a vaccine. 

Gostin said Biden’s case could actually further harden the vaccine hesitant because they’ll argue that if a person like Biden with four doses of vaccine still contracted the virus, they shouldn’t bother to get the shot. He said the administration needs to push back on that argument by pointing out the science on vaccines and treatments preventing severe illness. 

“It is very possible that the public, the public we want to capture, will have the exact opposite view that they should,” Gostin said.  

“We’re only out of the woods if we take the right steps,” he said. “And the White House really has to hammer home that science-based narrative.”  

According to White House officials, Biden has experienced relatively mild symptoms like fatigue, a runny nose and body aches that have dissipated in the days since he tested positive.  

“I think I’m on my way to a full, total recovery, God willing,” Biden told reporters in a Q&A following his hourlong meeting on the semiconductor bill, noting he still has a cough and a sore throat. In a memo released Monday, his physician, Kevin O’Connor, said that the president’s symptoms have “almost completely resolved.” 

Gostin noted that while Biden is likely to avoid hospitalization, he is still at risk for a rebound of symptoms — an occurrence in some patients taking Paxlovid — and long COVID-19.  

“His prognosis is good, but I think he’s certainly not out of the woods yet,” he said.