WASHINGTON – The White House sought Tuesday to prepare Americans for the possibility that President Joe Biden could contract COVID-19 after Vice President Kamala Harris became the latest White House official to test positive for the virus.
Harris’ positive test was a stark reminder that the circle of those infected in closing tighter around Biden, who has been vaccinated and received two booster shots. Biden is tested regularly – his most recent test, administered Monday, was negative – and administration officials stress that extra steps are taken to protect him.
But with cases on the rise again, the White House acknowledged the potential for exposure for Biden, who at age 79 faces greater health risks if he gets the virus.
“He is vaccinated and boosted. He is very well protected. He’s got very good protocols around him to protect him from getting infected,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said. “But there is no 100% anything. I think the key focus has got to be we’ve got to continue protecting the president.”
Harris’ office said she tested positive Tuesday as part of her regular testing regime. She is not exhibiting any symptoms and has not been in close contact with Biden or first lady Jill Biden, her office said. She will isolate and work from the vice president’s residence and will return to the White House when she tests negative.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a matter of time,” Jha said of the possibility of Biden getting COVID. “But, of course, it is possible that the president, like any other American, could get COVID.”
‘Age is a risk factor’
If he were to get COVID-19, Biden is a relatively high risk for a severe case simply because of his age.
“Advancing age is a risk factor for severe COVID disease, and every year older you are, the higher the risk grows,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, previously told USA TODAY.
On the positive side, as reported in his annual health checkups, Biden has no other major risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, asthma or lung disease.
Biden got his second COVID-19 booster shot March 30, following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those over 50.
Given Biden’s vaccination status, if he caught COVID-19, he’d probably have a mild case if he caught COVID, so it’s not a huge concern, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“We’ve got to lighten up a little bit on this zero tolerance,” he said. “There are a lot of viruses out there he could be exposed to. There are no risk-free situations.”
Even if the president comes down with COVID-19, he will be well protected from his first three shots and can improve his protection further by taking the antiviral Paxlovid.
The main challenge with the antivirals is they have to be given within five days of COVID-19 symptoms starting. Because Biden gets tested frequently, if he is infected, he should be able to start the drugs immediately – which should provide even better protection, Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease specialist with Northwell Health in New York City, previously told USA TODAY.
He noted, “I worry more if he’s wearing his seatbelt,” than about him getting COVID-19.
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Harris’ positive test comes amid a spike in COVID cases among high-profile figures and people who are close to Biden. The list includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Biden’s sister, two Cabinet secretaries, the second gentlemen and members of the president’s and vice president’s communication teams, including press secretary Jen Psaki.
Two senators – Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. – announced Tuesday that they also tested positive.
Administration officials have stresses that extra steps are taken to protect Biden, including requiring that anyone meeting or traveling with him be tested in advance. Social distancing is practiced, when possible, at meetings.
Psaki said she doesn’t expect the White House protocols to be updated in light of Harris’ positive test.
“We have stringent protocols here that go over and above the CDC recommendations, even as it relates to how long you stay at home,” she said.
People who test positive “don’t return to work until you have received a negative test,” Psaki said. “If that is before 10 days, you are still going to be masking. That is beyond what CDC protocols are.”
Biden and the first lady are still planning to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on Saturday, Psaki said. More than 2,600 people are expected to attend the black-tie soirée, a tradition that was canceled the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has attended the dinner many times in the past, Psaki said, “and he made a decision, through consultations, that it was an event he could attend and wanted to attend again.”
Just three weeks ago, dozens of guests at a separate gala, the white-tie Gridiron Club dinner, later reported positive COVID test results. The Bidens did not attend that dinner.
Guests at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner will be required to demonstrate proof that they have been vaccinated for COVID and show a same-day negative test to attend.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin, Maureen Groppe and Karen Weintraub
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Kamala Harris contracts COVID, can White House protect Biden?