The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s covid diagnosis shows the benefits of avoiding infection

President Biden coughs as he delivers remarks during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on July 15, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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So President Biden has contracted the coronavirus. The ever-dwindling population of Americans who’ve yet to be infected by a variant of the virus loses one more member.

However inevitable the illness may have seemed — this is a guy who meets a lot of people and does a lot of traveling, after all — it is not something that should warrant a shrug. Biden has been vaccinated and boosted as recommended for people his age and is already being treated with the therapeutic drug Paxlovid. But older Americans, even vaccinated ones, remain at higher risk from an infection.

That paragraph, though, has buried within it an important point about the pandemic broadly. When Donald Trump was president, his favored approach (manifested in advisers like radiologist Scott Atlas) was to simply return to normal as much as possible, allowing rampant infection to build population immunity. But that meant millions of people contracting the virus before vaccines and before effective therapeutics — so it meant hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Avoiding contracting the virus for as long as possible, as Biden did, means having the best chance at a quick and full recovery.

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Hospitalization or death is not the only negative effect of infection, of course. Many of those who contract the illness will see lingering effects over the medium or long term. But this doesn’t detract from the point: being infected by the virus later increases the odds of better treatments being available for variants.

Consider the difference between Biden’s contracting the virus and Trump’s having done so. Trump caught it in the fall of 2020, presumably the original variant of the virus that proved so deadly that winter. There were no vaccines; therapeutics were limited. Trump did receive a monoclonal antibody treatment that he described as a “cure,” but his hyping that treatment was in part aimed at once again convincing the country that the pandemic was all but solved. (His pledge to make the therapy universally available didn’t really pan out.)

After vaccines were widely available (50 percent of the country was vaccinated by last August) and with new variants making up much of the pool of infections, the risk to Biden (or Barack Obama earlier this year) was greatly diminished. Those presidential infections are shown on the graphs below, which compare new cases to hospitalizations a week later or deaths two weeks later.

The graphs above use only confirmed cases, ones that produced a positive test and were logged with health officials. Many infections these days are confirmed by tests at home and not reported — and many are simply never detected. There are estimates of how many people have been infected at any point over the course of the pandemic, like one compiled by Jungsik Noh of the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

If we compare estimated infections on a given day with hospitalizations and deaths, the toll of the omicron variants is even smaller.

If we compare case and hospitalization/death figures directly, you can see that the omicron variants have yielded smaller effects. You can see each new surge emerge on the graphs below, with the initial iteration of the virus yielding a large number of deaths with relatively few cases and the green omicron surge yielding many cases with relatively few deaths.

Then there’s the blue pattern, indicating the recent subvariants. It sits above the other groupings: more cases, but still fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Having the blue line on the right go straight up — more cases but no additional deaths — is much better than having it push to the right.

Soon after he tested positive, Trump — at high risk from the virus for several reasons — had to be flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment. Biden may take a turn for the worse, but, so far, such a worrisome response seems unlikely.

This is the state of the pandemic as the oldest president in U.S. history contracts a virus that is particularly dangerous for older Americans. By avoiding infection until now, Biden greatly diminished his likelihood of serious illness or death.