WASHINGTON (The Hill): White House officials say they’re taking all necessary precautions to keep President Biden from contracting COVID-19, following the news that press secretary Jen Psaki had been diagnosed with the virus.
Psaki, who is vaccinated, is just the latest person in Biden’s orbit to contract COVID-19. While the president is vaccinated and has taken a booster shot, he is also 78 years old, which puts him at a higher risk if he does contract COVID-19.
Vaccinations make it much less likely that a person will be hospitalized from COVID-19 or that it will be fatal.
A White House official said protocols for anyone who interacts with Biden are “informed by recommendations from public health and medical experts” and that “multiple risk mitigation strategies” are employed to protect Biden on a regular basis, including mandatory testing as a basic requirement before interacting with him, wearing masks indoors and social distancing “when appropriate.” Biden is tested randomly every two weeks as a safety precaution.
The White House also has strict guidelines on quarantining. Psaki will have to remain home for 10 days until she can return to work.
“I think it’s always top of mind,” said one Biden ally of the need to keep Biden and the White House safe. “How could it not be after the last year and a half?”
On the foreign trip this week, the White House official said Biden and aides were abiding by Italian and United Kingdom requirements.
The president was tested on Sunday as a prerequisite before entering the U.K. for an international climate summit and tested negative for COVID-19, White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday, after Psaki’s positive test was disclosed.
The White House official said the vaccine and booster shot were Biden’s “primary protection.”
“This, together with social distancing precautions which have been recommended for many, many months and keeps an incredibly safe environment,” the official continued.
Former President Trump contracted COVID-19 in October 2020, just weeks before the presidential election. Trump had a serious case of the disease and was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Biden’s presidential campaign was largely centered on the argument that he would manage the coronavirus more responsibly than Trump. This White House has been stricter with coronavirus protocols than the Trump administration, which largely shunned masks.
“Overall, as far as we know, the Biden administration has taken COVID safety to a much higher level of protection than the Trump administration,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “Having said that, [Biden] is extra vulnerable even having had his booster.”
The wide availability of coronavirus vaccines has ushered in a sense of normalcy to daily life at the White House: Biden travels regularly and hosts events on the White House grounds, and daily press briefings are again attracting their normal crowds.
Gostin said he was surprised to see the president interacting with Pope Francis in Rome last week without masks, arguing that it sent the wrong message.
“From a pontiff and president of those late years, I would have expected masking and distancing and outdoors if possible, and we got none of those,” Gostin said.
The White House has refused to detail the breadth of breakthrough coronavirus infections in the complex in recent weeks, only disclosing cases when they appear among senior-level staff.
Psaki, who is experiencing mild symptoms, said that she decided against going on the foreign trip and self-quarantined after members of her family tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday. She received negative tests until Sunday, the same day that she disclosed she had a breakthrough case.
Health experts said it is highly unlikely that Biden was exposed to the virus, given that Psaki last saw him in person five days before she received the positive test. White House officials, including Biden and his senior staff, also regularly wear masks in indoor settings unless they are delivering remarks.
While cases are falling in many parts of the country, the virus has presented challenges for an administration desperate to give a sense of normalcy to Americans. And at times, the administration has had to answer questions on Biden and other White House principals.
When Biden exhibited a cough last month, for example, Psaki said he was doing well and attributed it to allergies.
In September, Vice President Harris had a COVID-19 scare when two hosts of “The View” tested positive for the virus moments before she was scheduled to sit for a live, in-person interview. Harris did the interview from another room, and the tests were ultimately deemed false positives.
Biden’s White House is now requiring most federal workers, including those working in the White House, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22 or face disciplinary action, including termination.
Journalists and guests entering the White House grounds must attest that they are vaccinated or submit to testing.
The White House has touted vaccines, emphasizing that people who are vaccinated are much less likely to be hospitalized or die if they get COVID-19. Vaccinations also have the potential to quash out the disease, though the large number of unvaccinated people in the United States offer a fertile population for which it can spread.
“There are extremely rare cases of deaths or hospitalizations among fully vaccinated individuals,” Psaki said earlier this month after former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was vaccinated but suffered from comorbidities, died due to complications from the virus. “It is also the case … that an unvaccinated person has a more than 10 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to a fully vaccinated person. So there’s no question that vaccination, that taking precautions can save lives.”
Psaki is the highest-ranking White House official known to have contracted the coronavirus in the Biden administration. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and State Department spokesman Ned Price each tested positive for the virus earlier this fall.
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