His wife left for Delaware, bringing their new short-haired tabby with her. The staff in the executive mansion was reduced to the most essential staff, who worried Biden could contract the highly transmissible strain of the coronavirus that likely infected him.
And even the cart of video equipment drove into the treaty room on the second floor, phone calls from his grandchildren and a stack of books about Ireland couldn’t prevent the cabin fever.
“I’m only a few hundred yards away,” Biden told visitors from South Korea on Tuesday, who heard him speak on a screen in the Roosevelt Room. “I could look at you from the balcony and yell at you!”
When the meeting was over, he took off his coat and stepped out onto the Truman balcony.
“My wife is not there,” Biden explained a few hours later. “She usually takes him out in the morning while I’m training upstairs.”
On Wednesday, Biden had tested negative on two antigen tests and was allowed to break out of his isolation, although he must wear a mask for 10 days. His first stop: The White House Rose Garden to talk about his experience with the disease.
For a White House whose operations — from the earliest days — were designed to prevent the twenty-seven-year-old commander in chief from getting sick, Biden’s aides saw the illness as a sign that even the most protected person can get Covid and be fine.
Early in his tenure, Biden’s meetings were held with the smallest groups of officials, all of whom wore color-matched wristbands to signify that they had been tested for coronavirus that day. In the early months of Biden’s administration, masks were required all over the White House grounds. Travel outside of Washington was rare.
The president’s inner circle was so narrow that when a long line of Washington officials — including the vice president, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the speaker of the House and several senior Biden employees, including the press secretary and national security adviser – tested positive, no one was determined to have had “close contact” with Biden.
Concerns about the president contracting Covid were partly rooted in his age; at age 79, he is at higher risk for serious illness. But some Democrats also questioned how getting sick could affect Biden’s political position, given increasingly frequent questions about whether he will be too old to serve a second term.
But life in the bubble didn’t suit Biden, who was annoyed by the restrictions placed on a job he’d been looking for for the past four decades. Trappings such as state dinners and medal ceremonies were suspended. And perhaps most annoying to the famed tactile president, visitors were rare.
Restrictions began to ease as vaccinations became available and the virus began to decline. Even episodes of variant-driven revival didn’t stop Biden from starting to live more loosely.
He shook hands before and after the event, but didn’t linger long given the blistering sun and high temperatures. But that was an exception; as he begins to travel more around the country, Biden has spent a whopping 45 minutes after his speeches greeting the audience with handshakes and hugs.
However, by the time he returned to the White House on Wednesday night, he was beginning to feel fatigued. A restless night and two tests later, Biden became the second sitting US president to test positive for Covid.
His symptoms — runny nose, sore throat, elevated temperature, body aches — were all considered mild, which the White House attributed to his four doses of vaccine. But the rules were still the rules, and Biden entered the required period of isolation as his team began executing a plan they’d been drafting for months, starting with a quick public announcement.
Many White House staffers only learned of that revelation that the president had Covid.
“We’ve been saying for a while that there was a substantial possibility that the president – like everyone else – could get Covid, and we’ve been preparing for this possibility. We are now executing our plan so that the president can continue to operate seamlessly from the residence,” Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote in a memo to staff a few hours after the initial statement.
Speaking to reporters this week, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was joined by White House Covid Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, instead of the doctor who actually cared for Biden. Jha, who had not examined the president, FaceTimed him during his illness and received updates from the presidential physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor.
Reporters protested that they were not allowed to question O’Connor directly. Jha said neither Biden nor O’Connor had explicitly decided not to let O’Connor deliver the briefings himself.
O’Connor, a retired army colonel who has been treating Biden for several years, is not a seasoned presence on television or during public question-and-answer sessions, an official said. He has a casual, joking demeanor with Biden and other top officials – sometimes with humor to cut through serious moments, including when Biden’s son Beau was diagnosed with cancer – but normally he has no contact with the press.
However, Jha appeared regularly as a medical commentator on Covid before joining the White House earlier this year.
During former President Donald Trump’s battle with Covid in 2020, then-White House physician Dr. Sean Conley, reporters from the steps of Walter Reed National Medical Center, where Trump was hospitalized.
Conley, it was later learned, concealed the seriousness of Trump’s illness during his briefings. It wasn’t until former chief of staff Mark Meadows published his White House memoir that Trump’s oxygen levels dropped to about 86% — dangerously below normal.
O’Connor, in daily written updates distributed by the White House news agency, has not disclosed Biden’s oxygenation rate, other than that his “oxygen saturation remains excellent in the air in the room.” He also described Biden’s heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate as “normal” without releasing numbers.
White House officials said those vital signs were recorded over the course of the day and never deviated from normal levels. And they argued that because the president’s symptoms were mild, their level of transparency was appropriate.
“We’ve given, I think, an extraordinary amount of transparency about his concern: when he tested positive; how he was doing every day; the evolving nature of his symptoms: is his runny nose a little worse, a little better?” Jha told reporters Monday. “Like, we’ve been very, very open and transparent with all that data.”
The White House had to cancel a series of out-of-town events, including a political rally in Tampa, Florida, which was seen as a debut of sorts for the president’s upcoming interim message.
A speech to a group of black law enforcement officers that Biden planned to deliver in person in Orlando went virtual instead. He used the address to accuse his predecessor of cowardice during the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, a statement that aides once hoped he would deliver to a crowded and supportive audience.
Instead, Biden recorded the speech from the Treaty Room, where he had spent much of his days in seclusion. The video released Monday by the White House was edited in several places as Biden continued to cough.
By Tuesday, however, Biden’s vote had largely lost its rasp.
“I hope I look as good as I feel,” Biden told a group during a video conference. “I never look this good. I hope I look as good as usual, which is not so good.”