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Opinion Biden’s covid diagnosis is a teaching moment for the country

President Biden speaks in Somerset, Mass., on July 20. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Biden’s covid-19 diagnosis is an opportunity for his administration to demonstrate the success of his leadership on the pandemic and what living with the coronavirus looks like.

The fact that Biden contracted the coronavirus should not be surprising at all. People around him have been getting infected for months, including Vice President Harris, multiple Cabinet secretaries, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Frankly, I’m surprised Biden had held off infection for so long, given the number of public events he has attended and his proclivity for hugging and shaking hands.

His symptoms so far are mild, and they will likely stay that way. His age is a risk factor, but he is vaccinated and twice-boosted, meaning he is very well protected against severe illness. Biden also received the antiviral pill Paxlovid right after his diagnosis. When taken early in the course of illness, Paxlovid further reduces the risk of hospitalization and death by about 90 percent.

Biden, his medical team and others in the administration have done all the right things to demonstrate what should happen after a covid diagnosis. Right after he tested positive, his staff canceled public events. He entered isolation, and White House staff near him were cut to the minimum number. The administration began reaching out to those with whom he had exposure so that they can follow precautions and get tested.

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It’s also notable that Biden has been receiving regular tests, with the last negative test reported on Tuesday — two days before his positive test Thursday morning. That means his infection was caught quickly. This is important for two reasons: First, it allows for more precise and timely contact-tracing. Second, it enables antiviral treatment to begin rapidly. The sooner a person takes Paxlovid, the more effective it will be in stopping virus replication and curbing the progression to severe disease.

These are all important lessons for Americans. Biden should use his illness as an opportunity to inform the public that covid-19 is a manageable disease for almost everyone, so long as they use the tools available to them. It’s crucial to test as soon as someone develops symptoms, and if they’re positive, to isolate right away. Let people they’ve exposed know that they should take necessary precautions. Then, take advantage of available treatments. The earlier the better; don’t wait until symptoms become severe to initiate Paxlovid.

Another key lesson is that it’s inevitable that everyone — even the president of the United States — will be exposed to the coronavirus. That’s why vaccination and boosters are so important. Biden needs to keep emphasizing that he is doing well because he is up to date on vaccines. The fact that he contracted the coronavirus doesn’t mean that the vaccines don’t work; rather, vaccines succeeded because they are keeping him out of the hospital.

Biden can also message that those who wish to prolong the period until they get the coronavirus can use additional measures, such as masking in indoor spaces and testing before gathering inside. No doubt, these practices are what kept Biden from being infected until now.

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Still, the fact that he contracted the virus despite all these precautions speaks to how contagious emerging variants are — and how difficult, if not impossible, avoiding covid-19 has become. Getting the coronavirus should not come with stigma or be perceived as a failure; rather, it should reflect the new normal going forward. Indeed, this is almost certainly not the only time Biden will get the coronavirus. He, like the rest of us, could contract the virus once a year or more.

What if Biden’s illness progresses to become more serious? It’s possible that he starts experiencing fever and body aches, and he could develop a lingering cough and other longer-term symptoms. It’s unlikely — though also not impossible — that he could even become ill enough to require hospitalization. These are still opportunities for him to showcase his leadership and values by being honest and transparent with the American people. Already, the straightforward announcement of Biden’s illness has been a stark contrast from the obfuscation and deliberate flouting of precautions when President Donald Trump had covid-19.

For now, Biden is back at work and carrying out all the duties of his office. That’s exactly as it should be. Thanks in large part to Biden’s leadership over the past two years, the United States has had so much success with vaccines and treatments that even when the president gets the virus, it’s business as usual.

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