President Biden tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday. Any time the president of the United States tests positive for a disease that has killed over a million Americans, it should send alarm bells ringing. At the same time, the fact that it’s taken this long for the virus to find its way to him is a testament to the White House’s protocol to protect him. Presidents have busy schedules that involve meeting lots of people—lots of people who increasingly have Covid.
Thankfully, the president appears to be having a mild course. His symptoms so far include a runny nose, a dry cough, and general fatigue—but they’re mild. He’s had four doses of Covid vaccine, the last one just over three months ago. And he’s already on Paxlovid, the antiviral medication that reduces hospitalizations by 90 percent. Though the infection will certainly interfere with his workflow, I suspect that the president will have a mild case and will likely be back to his usual schedule soon. That said, given that he is 79 years old, it remains possible that his course could deteriorate.
Beyond the health of the president himself, this moment offers a unique Rorschach test—for our country and for our politics. Right now, omicron BA.5 is rampaging across the country. The president is the president, and there’s only one at a time, but the fact is that Biden is one of roughly 125,000 Americans diagnosed with the virus Thursday. Cases have jumped 18 percent over the past two weeks. Hospitalizations are up 19 percent—and deaths are up a whopping 32 percent. The fact that deaths have risen disproportionally suggests that our case numbers are probably a vast underestimate; after all, most Americans are testing at home by rapid test rather than by PCR, which is automatically reported to authorities who manage overall counts.
This points to the risks of decommissioning so much of the infrastructure we relied on during the thickest points of the pandemic. We are willingly flying blind just as the virus has zeroed in on our vulnerabilities. BA.5—which is dominant across the U.S. right now—has made dramatic leaps in its evolution in just a few months. It isn’t just the most transmissible variant of Covid, but among the most transmissible viruses humanity has ever recorded. It’s also the most immune-evasive variant, reinfecting more people than any variant before it and rendering both previous infection and immunization far less protective against infection. And yet America is doing its best ostrich impression.
We are undoubtedly in a better place against this current surge than we have ever been. We know how this virus behaves. We have effective vaccines and treatments. We have rapid tests. We know that a well-fitting N95 can reliably protect us against Covid. But all of these work only if two other things are true: We have enough supply of them, and people use them in the first place.
While we should not be retreating to the lockdowns of 2020, we cannot pretend that the virus isn’t infecting and killing Americans, either. Yes, it’s time to get back to life as we once knew it—but not without also securing ourselves against the persistent risks of a pandemic that is not yet over.
And that’s where we’re flagging. It all comes back to the cynicism of GOP politicians who first politicized the pandemic and have since turned Covid into their favorite hobbyhorse, flogging it for their favorite political ends. Vaccination rates remain dreadfully low. While 67 percent of Americans have had two doses of the vaccine, only 32 percent have had any booster. The strongest predictor of vaccination is political ideology—never mind the irony of screaming about bodily autonomy when it comes to a vaccine while also lauding the Supreme Court’s destruction of Roe v. Wade.
It’s one thing to choose not to get vaccinated (which, by the way, not a single national GOP politician has done, as far as we know). It’s a worse thing to stoke the fears of your political base and dissuade them from getting vaccinated. And it’s worse still to prevent Americans of all stripes from getting the resources they need to fight the pandemic. To that end, Biden requested an additional $22.5 billion back in March to fund everything from testing to vaccines to Paxlovid treatments—the money we would need in order to learn to “live with” the virus. So far, that funding has stalled on the opposition of GOP lawmakers. Even as vaccine manufacturers plan to roll out omicron-specific boosters and test BA.5-specific versions, the funding for it is faltering, which may leave us without the money to provide these critical new vaccines when they’re available.
But that’s not to say that lawmakers are done with Covid. Stay tuned: The very same ones who are allowing the pandemic to flap in the wind are chomping at the bit to make political hay of the president’s diagnosis with it now. Though Trump’s White House was far less forthcoming than Biden’s about his illness when he was infected in 2020, watch for Republicans who will use this diagnosis to play to one of their favorite attack lines against Biden about his age and general health.
A tragedy of this pandemic is that it could have—it should have—brought us together. Lives would have been saved. But those who want to divide us will use anything at their disposal to do so—even a pandemic.