WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden ended his covid-19 isolation on Wednesday, telling Americans they can “live without fear” of the pandemic if they take advantage of booster shots and treatments, the protections he credited with his swift recovery.
“You don’t need to be president to get these tools to be used for your defence,” he said in the Rose Garden. “In fact, the same booster shots, the same at-home test, the same treatment that I got is available to you.”
The pandemic has killed more than 1 million people in the U.S. and it continues to disrupt daily life more than two years after it began. But Biden emphasized that people are far less likely to die from the disease despite a wave of new infections caused by a contagious variant known as BA.5, which is believed to have sickened the president as well.
“You can live without fear by doing what I did,” he said. "Get boosted, get tested and get treatment.”
He talked more about treatment than prevention, a sign of how the pandemic and his approach has evolved.
“Grandparents are hugging their kids and grandkids again. Weddings, birthdays, celebrations are happening in person again,” Biden said. “Let’s keep emerging from one of the darkest moments in our history."
Biden drew a contrast to when President Donald Trump contracted covid-19 and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“He was severely ill. Thankfully, he recovered,” Biden said. "When I got covid, I worked from upstairs in the White House." The difference, Biden said, is the availability of vaccines, treatments and home tests for catching infections early.
It was Biden's first public appearance in person since he tested positive for covid-19 on July 21. He walked out of the White House on Wednesday wearing his trademark aviator glasses and a dark face mask, which his doctor said he'll continue wearing when in proximity to others for five more days.
White House staff assembled in the Rose Garden applauded Biden, who thanked them for their support as he finished his remarks. “God bless you all, and now I get to go back to the Oval Office,” he said.
Biden tested negative for the virus on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, allowing him to end his isolation.
The variant that likely infected the president, BA.5, is an offshoot of the omicron strain that was first detected last year. It's now responsible for 82% of cases in the country, with its cousin BA.4 contributing another 13%.
The summer wave of infections continues to disrupt society, particularly for people at high risk for severe disease who are encouraged to avoid exposure in places where transmission is high. The majority of people in the U.S. live in counties with high levels of spread and in those places, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masks in indoor public spaces for everyone.
However, mask mandates have largely faded. In Los Angeles County, where face coverings are required on trains and buses, a slight slowing in cases may spare authorities from imposing an expanded mask order.
The latest variants are able to evade protection offered by vaccination, but the combination of vaccines and booster shots still lowers the risk of hospitalization and death. More than 43,000 people in the U.S. are currently hospitalized with covid-19 and about 430 die each day.
Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to treat covid-19, has also helped prevent more severe illnesses. Biden completed a five-day course on the pills. Dr. Kevin O’Connor, Biden’s physician, wrote in Wednesday’s update that the president remains free of fever and had not used Tylenol in the past 36 hours.
Biden’s symptoms were almost “completely resolved,” O’Connor reported. “Given these reassuring factors, the president will discontinue his strict isolation measures,” the doctor wrote.
By all accounts, Biden had a mild bout with the virus. O'Connor consistently wrote in his updates that Biden's vital signs remained strong, and his temperature only became briefly elevated. He suffered from a runny nose, cough, sore throat and some body aches.
However, the infection was disruptive. Biden cancelled a trip to Pennsylvania, where he was going to detail his crime prevention plans and speak at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, and skipped a long weekend at his family home in Delaware.
First lady Jill Biden went without him, and Biden was isolated in the White House residence. With voters already concerned about Biden’s age — he turns 80 in November — his aides emphasized that he was working despite his illness.
They released photos of him talking on the phone, and Biden participated in virtual meetings with advisers. His voice was hoarse and he coughed through a conversation on Friday, but he had significantly improved after the weekend.
“I’m not keeping the same hours, but I’m meeting all the requirements that have come before me,” Biden said Monday.
Although presidents benefit from household attendants, Biden’s infection brought a few unglamorous glimpses of life with covid-19.
Shortly before 7 a.m. on Monday, he said, he felt “the nuzzle of my dog’s nose against my chest.” “My wife’s not here, she usually takes him out,” he said. Then, during another meeting on Tuesday, the dog interrupted the conversation by barking in the background.