President Biden has COVID-19 — but experts say it's unlikely to be a bad case. Here's why

Public health experts weigh in on the risks and dangers to the president, who has just tested positive for COVID-19

Published July 21, 2022 4:06PM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden departs the Oval Office and walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden departs the Oval Office and walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that he has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Notably, Biden is at an unusually high risk of developing serious complications because of his age. Indeed, more than half of the American COVID-19 mortalities as of July 13 were from individuals above the age of 75, and Biden will turn 80 in November.

Fortunately, public health experts agree that because the president has been vaccinated and (to the best of the public's knowledge) has behaved responsibly, Biden is at significantly less risk than his unvaccinated counterparts.

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"His response as an individual and leader is exemplary and others in his age group should follow his example," Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Salon by email. "The risk is for unprincipled people to use his case to minimize the value of vaccination. His case is actually a case study in how and why vaccines work and their benefit to society."

More than half of the American COVID-19 mortalities as of July 13 were from individuals above the age of 75, and Biden will turn 80 in November.

Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, bluntly told Salon in writing that he expects Biden's political opponents to use the fact of the president's diagnosis as a "political prop." Yet medical science — and, specifically, the human immune system — is far more complicated than most appreciate.

"The severity of disease is determined to a significant degree by your general health, underlying conditions, and strength of your immune response," Sommer explained. Because Biden is older, any of these potential latent health vulnerabilities have been compounded, and as a result he is at a greater risk of developing a severe version of the disease. Yet the fact that Biden is vaccinated gives him a great advantage in terms of his health prospects, particularly compared to the unvaccinated.

"Prior immunization (ideally 4 'shots') mitigates the severity of disease," Sommer added. "Just as important is the capacity of the specific variant to cause disease."


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Indeed, certain variants appear to be milder or more harsh than others — with variation in their ability to evade vaccines and cause breakthrough infections. A study from March 2022 found that breakthrough infections — meaning infections in someone who has been previously vaccinated against COVID-19 — were very unlikely to result in hospitalization. That suggests Biden is unlikely to be hospitalized for his breakthrough infection. 

Dr. Irwin Redlener, the leader of Columbia University's Pandemic Response Initiative, said Biden is at elevated risk because of his age. But he noted that is the case because "anybody over 75 is at added risk for contracting [COVID-19]." In Biden's case, the president "is healthy, vaccinated, double boosted and generally healthy." Redlener also noted that particularly contagious subvariants like BA.5 make it "extremely likely that virtually everyone has a good chance of getting" infected. The "difference is that [the] unvaccinated [are] much more likely to get very sick or not survive than those who are fully vaccinated and boosted."

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon that, based on Biden's public medical record, it is likely that he will not even need to engage in the precautionary measure that has been undertaken — that is, the oral antiviral medication Paxlovid.

"He does not actually fit the clinical criteria of being treated with Paxlovid as he is neither unvaccinated nor at risk of a severe infection nor immunocompromised," Gandhi told Salon by email. "Therefore, like many of his fellow political figures (such as Nancy Pelosi who is of similar age and health and did not have any symptoms when she tested positive), it is very unlikely he will become sick from COVID given his health status and four vaccine injections."

Gandhi expressed concern about how Biden's political opponents could mischaracterize science for their own political gain.

"There is a risk of his diagnosis being exaggerated for political purposes," Gandhi told Salon. "Almost everyone is likely to confront [COVID-19] at one point or another but President Biden's administration has said lately that people should try to avoid infection, recommending indoor masking and other precautions. So there is a risk of President Biden looking like he wasn't 'careful enough' instead of the public understanding that a highly transmissible respiratory virus is likely to spread despite many precautions."

Read more Salon articles on COVID-19:


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Age Covid-19 Donald Trump Gerontocracy Joe Biden Reporting