When Melania Trump contracted the coronavirus in October 2020, alongside President Donald Trump, it was a time of terrifying uncertainty. There was no vaccine, the economy was in crisis, and more than 207,000 Americans, and more than a million people globally, had died.
Jill Biden was on vacation with President Biden and their family at a private residence on Kiawah Island, S.C., during summer break from her job teaching English composition and English fundamentals at Northern Virginia Community College. She is vaccinated and double-boosted, and was able to take the antiviral drug Paxlovid, which has been shown to be particularly effective in preventing severe cases for people older than 65, according to her communications director, Elizabeth Alexander. At 71, she is the oldest person in history to sit as first lady.
Biden, 79, had just recovered from his own coronavirus bout when the first lady tested positive, recovered, then tested positive again in a “rebound” case. She isolated both times, first in South Carolina and then at the Bidens’ house in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Fourteen days after her first isolation, on Monday night, she tested negative and returned to the White House on Tuesday.
“She spent it like most people did, which was quarantine in a couple rooms, working on curriculum, reading a lot of essays she didn’t have time to read otherwise, and watching way too much Netflix,” says senior adviser Anthony Bernal, who was with her in both locations but didn’t physically interact with her.
The first lady’s office declined several requests to name the Netflix shows she watched.
Melania Trump, then 50, had been at the White House for the packed, maskless September 2020 ceremony announcing her husband’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court that has been linked to the coronavirus infections of two dozen people, including Donald Trump, his wife, then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, members of the media, and members of Congress. Up until then, Melania had often bucked her husband’s approach to the disease, as the only member of the Trump family to wear a mask to the presidential debates (at least some of the time). She even released a PSA about mask-wearing five days after her husband said, “I just don’t want to wear one.”
While Donald Trump was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center receiving an antibody treatment not yet available to the public, Melania Trump opted to stay in the White House residence and “to go a more natural route in terms of medicine, opting more for vitamins and healthy food,” she wrote for the official White House website in a piece titled “My personal experience with covid-19.” She also revealed, for the first time, that Barron Trump had tested positive at the same time as his parents.
The contrast in the two first ladies’ coronavirus experiences is, in its own way, a stark reminder of the differences between the two administrations’ approaches to the virus, and also, how much the experience of contracting the coronavirus has changed over two years.
Many teachers would recognize Jill Biden’s predicament. She was recharging in the last few weeks before the new school year when she started to feel sick, took a couple coronavirus tests and suddenly had to isolate. The day before her positive test, she’d been wrapping up a trip with the president and Hunter Biden’s family. There’d been a shopping outing and a bike ride along the beach on a wide-wheeled cruiser, with the president, Secret Service agents and paparazzi in tow.
She tested positive the night before the president headed back to the White House and canceled a trip to Disney World, where she was planning to give a speech at the Warrior Games, an Olympics for wounded and ill active-duty and veteran members of the U.S. military. She spent the next five days entirely alone — hence the copious Netflix bingeing.
“She said to me: ‘We’re blessed. We have medicine. We have vaccination,’ ” says Bernal. “She goes: ‘All I keep thinking about are all those people at the early stages of this awful, awful virus and what they went through.’ ”
Once she’d tested negative twice, she headed to Delaware on a Sunday to join the president. Three days later, she tested positive again.
That prompted more isolation. The president left to announce the administration’s sweeping student loan forgiveness plan, while Jill Biden stayed behind, this time, at least, with the company of Willow, the tabby cat she’d met and fallen in love with at a campaign stop on a Pennsylvania farm in 2020. “She’s been able to hang out with Willow, so I think she’s less lonesome, probably, because at least she has somebody with her,” says Bernal.
The only fresh air she got was on the terraces and lawns where she was staying. In Washington, she’s been known to drop into barre classes. She’s a cyclist. “Working out was always something we factored into the scheduling equation,” says Michael LaRosa, her former White House press secretary, who also worked with her on the 2020 campaign. “I can’t imagine how challenging it was for her to be confined to covid jail.”
Her in-person human interaction consisted only of Bernal, who delivered her meals at a great distance. She was also in regular communication with her doctor.
“One of the things that we’ve tried to be very respectful of is the fact that she can’t just leave and go someplace without Secret Service and we don’t want to put them [in any position to be exposed],” Bernal explains. “So she’s not getting in cars with them.”
Jill Biden spent much of 2021 as the administration’s chief ambassador for vaccinations. She’s visited states such as Mississippi and Tennessee with low vaccination rates and a fair amount of hostility toward her husband, and she’s renewed those efforts every time a new group becomes eligible to get vaccinated: young adults, children, infants.
Both Melania Trump and Donald Trump received a coronavirus vaccine before leaving the White House in January 2021, when vaccines were not readily available to the public, but the former president’s office did not acknowledge their immunizations for four months.
Unlike Melania Trump, who rarely stumped for Republicans or her husband, Jill Biden is expected to fundraise in tight midterm elections. Already, her rebound case kept her from joining the president at a fundraiser in Rockville, Md., when he made a return to the campaign trail, railing against Trump’s “semi-fascism.” She also missed her community college’s annual convocation at the start of the school year. Instead, she sat outside at the Rehoboth Beach house, using Zoom on her computer to participate in three days of meetings.
Back in 2020, Melania Trump wrote on the White House site that she’d made it through her coronavirus infection with “minimal symptoms,” including body aches, cough, headaches and extreme exhaustion. After her husband returned to the White House while still infectious, Melania Trump’s office released a statement detailing the coronavirus precautions they’d taken in the White House residence, following critical media reports about the coronavirus risk to butlers, valets and other civil servants who run the first family’s quarters.
“I spent much of my time reflecting on my family,” Melania wrote in her post-recovery essay after testing negative. “I also thought about the hundreds of thousands of people across our country who have been impacted by this illness that infects people with no discrimination.” She cautioned that, with the upcoming election, “it has been easy to get caught up in so much negative energy.”
Two days later, Melania Trump wrote another essay that she said was inspired by the three weeks she had “to reflect on things personal to me.” She had realized that she wanted to spend her “time and effort” helping children and criticized the media for overlooking the good work of her Be Best initiative and instead focusing on “the noise made by self-serving adults.”
Jill Biden so far has not written about her coronavirus experience. She has a busy and presumably now-covid-free fall ahead. There’s planning for Halloween and Christmas parties that were canceled over the past two years because of the pandemic.
In September, she’ll join the president at the U.N. General Assembly for the first time as first lady, and she has outreach planned for Hispanic Heritage Month. It’ll give her a chance to practice her Spanish. She’s been learning all summer, says Bernal, taking online classes and also working with an app on her phone. (The White House would not reveal which one.) The outreach may go a long way to repairing the stumble Jill Biden made in July when she seemed to compare Latino diversity to breakfast tacos at an event in San Antonio celebrating Latinos.
“I do think most Latinos know what she’s done and that she’s leaned in and showed up,” says Bernal. “She’s trying, and I think most people are saying that’s what matters.”
Now that she’s out of isolation, she’s headed back to full-time teaching, which starts the day after Labor Day, with morning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a lot of grading papers on White House airplanes in between.
And then, of course, there’s her granddaughter Naomi’s wedding to fiance Peter Neal. Naomi is Hunter Biden’s eldest daughter, and Joe and Jill’s first grandchild to get married. The Bidens, not taxpayers, will pay for it. It’ll be the 19th White House wedding in history and the first since 2013.
So, you know, just a relaxing, stress-free schedule to ease back into life after covid.