Biden’s COVID: Was He a Good Enough Role Model for Staying Safe?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


July 26, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the NYU School of Medicine where I head the Division of Medical Ethics.

Currently, one of the most famous patients of all time has been identified publicly as having COVID-19. Joe Biden's doctors announced that he had contracted the disease. I don't think this is a surprise to anyone. We see so many people coming down with it and being reported in this country, and elsewhere, as having caught this new variant that's highly contagious, that I think it was only a matter of time until he got sick.

Joe Biden is probably the most famous patient in recent times to get COVID-19 and we're all watching closely to see what's going on. He is setting an example, serving as a role model, and teaching lessons just by getting this disease.

We all know that he's been traveling to many places overseas and around the US and he didn't mask. I think he should have been masked. It sent a message that perhaps that wasn't important. I think that we can watch carefully and see what kind of care he gets, but the problem will be that many Americans don't have access to the kind of care he will receive to get through COVID-19.

Perhaps we need to worry about what the long-term impact of this disease might be on a 79-year-old man. His doctors say he only has a mild case and he's doing pretty well, which makes sense. Let's remember that Joe Biden is 79 years old. Some people say they see signs of frailty in his gait and speech. There is reason to be concerned because he's absolutely in a high-risk group.

What does him getting COVID-19 mean for our attempt to contain the pandemic? What's likely to be on the minds of patients as they see the president go through this experience? What's the impact likely to be down the road for doctor-patient communication about COVID-19?

You have to remember that President Biden did not aggressively take steps to try to protect himself. What I mean by that is that although he was tested frequently for COVID-19 — as was Donald Trump in the prevaccine days — he did not mask all the time.

He was in groups of people around the world where he wasn't wearing a mask and he did not distance from people all the time. Some of you remember the recent picture of him giving a fist bump to the leadership in Saudi Arabia with no mask and, obviously, close contact. As far as I know, his staff wasn't taking precautions to make sure that he was in well-ventilated spaces or outdoors whenever possible.

That has an impact. People see what's going on with the president and some are absolutely going to say, "If we're all going to get it, then whether the rates are going up and up and up — Los Angeles County indicating it might go to mask requirements soon — we aren't going to mask."

I don't think people are going to do it. If the president doesn't do it, if he's not the role model and it looks like we have this attitude that it's inevitable that we're going to catch it, that's really going to make it very difficult to do things in the prevention realm.

I predict that if he comes through this okay, it's really going to be difficult, no matter what the virus is doing, to get us to put our masks back on. I just don't think the public has the will to do it anymore, rightly or wrongly. When our leaders all catch COVID-19 and they all pull through, people start to think there is no point.

President Biden also has access to excellent healthcare, and he has had his four shots, including two boosters, if you will. He certainly had primary care and was getting tested almost daily, apparently, but many Americans don't have that. They don't have good primary care. Some don't have testing.

I have a neighbor up here in Connecticut, where I'm speaking from today, who went to a test-and-treat center. He had symptoms and wanted to make sure that he got the antiviral drug Paxlovid, which the president is on, and he was turned away because they didn't take his insurance.

We still have not paved the way for our patients to access COVID-19 testing and good advice easily and quickly, or to access antiviral treatments. I think there are still roadblocks out there. The president's care should remind us that there's work to do to make sure that every American can succeed in getting the kind of care that the president is getting.

It's also the case, just as a public policy matter, that although his doctors say his case is mild, it could deteriorate. Let's hope not. We've seen many problems in the past with Donald Trump and other presidents where there's been a reluctance to start discussions about shifting authority or shifting the presidency to somebody else.

The president's doctors don't want to do that. The president's staff doesn't want to do that. They're loyal and they want him to retain the power of the presidency. Let's say he does get very sick. Will we trigger the 25th Amendment? Who will be talking about that? Can we get transparency there?

Remember, too, there's one other big risk out here that President Biden faces, which I hope doesn't occur, and that's long-term COVID-19. In the short run, he can isolate. In the short run, he can probably do his job while staying safe and distancing from others. By the way, he can isolate in a way that many Americans can't.

I think how his COVID-19 is managed has big lessons that the nation is going to be paying close attention to. Some of them, I worry, may make us more vulnerable to COVID-19 spreading even faster: a president who didn't mask.

Other people may look at him and say, "If a 79-year-old can get through this, then I'm not going to worry too much about COVID-19 anymore. To heck with vaccination, distancing, and staying home. If an older, high-risk person can survive, then I'm not going to worry about it much either."

All of us need to be watching closely and expecting full transparency should this virus impair our president in the long run.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

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