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‘We don’t know that’: A curious answer about Biden and a 20-year-old getting COVID

Fauci highlighted vaccine effectiveness, but Trump isn't ignoring president's age

President Joe Biden, 79, rides his bike through Cape Henlopen State Park in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Sunday.
President Joe Biden, 79, rides his bike through Cape Henlopen State Park in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Sunday. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Questions about the health of a 79-year-old head of state will always be risky business. The answers always are telling — sometimes, however, what’s sound medically can be lacking politically.

Senior aides to older leaders handle queries about sniffles, limps, water glass-holding, annual physicals and, now, COVID-19 in a manner of ways. Over the years, some presidents have dispatched their military doctors to throw open — to some extent — their medical charts and let the world know how healthy they are.

Such reports have been delivered with varying degrees of believability.

The Biden White House took office after beating back former President Donald Trump’s characterization of the former vice president as “sleepy Joe,” charging his opponent was happy to run a COVID-era presidential campaign from the comfort of his basement in Wilmington, Del.

Since, White House aides have largely ignored daily charges from conservative media outlets that Biden is unaware of what is going on around him and is being somehow controlled by the most liberal members of the Democratic Party.

At times, public statements from West Wing aides appear to dismiss Biden’s age.

Another example came last Thursday, when Press Secretary Jen Psaki took a meandering question that contained an insightful query.

The reporter basically asked Biden’s top spokesperson if the White House recently dropping its mask mandate, and having Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with staff, walk around and appear in public unmasked was a signal to the rest of the country.

Is the suddenly bare presidential face, “in part, to kind of lead by example for Americans to say, ‘You can get back to living your normal lives, and you shouldn’t be concerned that even if you get exposed to somebody just briefly, you shouldn’t freak out about that? You don’t need to test a bunch of times.’”

“Is that basically the dynamic that you’re trying to say?” the reporter asked before Psaki tried to break in, only to allow for the really interesting portion of the question: “Even though if the president — 79 years old — the president of the United States were to get COVID, it might be more serious than, you know, somebody in their 20s?”

Psaki often repeats a reporter’s question or initially provides a minute or so of background information. So her immediate response was telling.

“Well, we don’t know that,” she said.

Technically, Psaki does have a point, as she expanded on a moment later.

“I would say we do take extra precautions, including individuals who are around the president being tested,” she said, referring to Dr. Kevin O’Connor, the physician to the president. “He is the president of the United States, so we do take those additional steps.”

“And we, of course, abide by what the recommendations and advice are of his medical doctor,” Psaki added. “And if that would be to do increased testing, we would certainly do that. But he does not feel that that is necessary, at this point in time, based on these recent contacts.”

One precaution she and the White House must take now is her own isolation. Psaki tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, one day after being in two “socially distanced meetings” with Biden. The press secretary claimed she was not deemed a “close contact” of Biden in their interactions on Monday. (She is no longer going on Air Force One with the president when he leaves Wednesday for an emergency NATO meeting about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)

Last Thursday’s answer was a departure from the administration’s own warnings about older people and COVID-19, but it underscores the data Biden and his top medical officials have in vaccines preventing serious illness or death.

Consider comments made by Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, on a Feb. 28 call with reporters.

“And this is a summary of data: If you compare a fully vaccinated person with one who has received a booster shot, and look at the monthly rate of COVID-19 associated hospitalizations during a time frame of December 2021, there was a 45-fold higher likelihood of an unvaccinated person in the age range of 50 to 64,” he said, “and a 51-fold higher likelihood of an unvaccinated age 65 and older of being hospitalized when you compare it to an individual with a boost.”

The bottom line, according to Fauci: “So, we can only come to one conclusion … that COVID-19 vaccines, booster shots, can keep you out of the hospital and certainly can save your life.”

Still, the initially dismissive response marks the latest attempt by Team Biden to ignore the elephant in the room: If Biden seeks a second term, he will be 81 years old in 2024, the year of the next presidential election.

But why not just take the question more seriously? After all, voters are not blind. They see Biden moving slowly and sometimes stiffly, squinting more by Thursday or Friday to read his TelePrompter.

But they also saw him stand for well over an hour and deliver — often forcefully — his first State of the Union address well into the 10 o’clock evening hour and then slowly glad-hand his way out of the House chamber. They also see footage of him taking bike rides in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and sometimes jogging on stage during public events.

One thing is for sure, the 75-year-old Trump, should he be the 2024 GOP nominee, will not ignore his would-be general election foe’s higher age.

“Slow on the draw” in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s how Trump described Biden in a March 15 statement. He continued painting the sitting chief executive as too old and too incompetent for his job during a Monday morning interview on Fox Business.

“Because he’s stupid, OK? Because he’s stupid and because they’re stupid, and they shouldn’t be in power anyway,” Trump said of Biden and his staff when asked about their collective response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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