Should President Biden be 'working through' COVID-19?

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WASHINGTON — Americans work far more than most of their peers in the developed world, a habit that not even a global pandemic could halt. Many knowledge-class professionals who have the luxury of working from home (service workers rarely enjoy such benefits, or the benefit of paid sick leave) have chosen to do so even when sick with COVID-19, despite corporate leaders and medical professionals urging against such practices.

“The American mentality is that we just don’t know how to relax and rest,” a Los Angeles emergency care doctor told CNBC.

This week, President Biden became part of the working-through-COVID dilemma that millions of others have experienced in the last two and a half years. Forced to confront the unpleasant reality of a positive COVID-19 test on Thursday morning, he found both professional and personal plans disrupted. He was supposed to head to Pennsylvania that afternoon, then spend the weekend on the beach in Delaware. Instead, he will be isolating at the White House until at least the middle of next week.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on the phone on Thursday. (Adam Schultz/White House via AP) (AP)

Isolating, yes, but also working, as the White House has been at pains to show. “Look, the president could be a president anywhere, right? It doesn’t — it doesn’t matter where he’s located. He has the technology, he has the tools — what he needs — the communications, what he needs to continue to do his job,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing on Thursday.

To observers who worry about the sustainability of America’s work culture, that was the wrong message to send, part of what these critics see more broadly as a missed opportunity to rethink political and social priorities. Writing in her newsletter in May about the “working-through-it” phenomenon, Anne Helen Peterson, co-author of a recent book on how the pandemic has changed the American workplace, worried about “people who have internalized a personal or structural work ethic that whispers to them — before and after a positive Covid test — that rest is weakness, and the ability to power through sickness is a sign of personal grit and resilience.”

The reality of Biden’s current employment complicates the calculus of working versus resting. In recent months, questions about the president’s age and health have grown more insistent. His bout with the coronavirus will likely amplify that narrative, whether fairly or not. Although the president is vaccinated and double-boosted, his advanced age — he will turn 80 in November — is a cause for concern for many.

To blunt that concern, the White House has released photographs and video of Biden working at his desk. “The president has been working from the residence, like so many of us have during this pandemic,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday. “He’s feeling tired, but he’s working very hard on behalf of the American people,” she added a few moments later.

Ashish Jha
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, at a press briefing on Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

White House COVID-19 response team coordinator Ashish Jha, who was also at the briefing, deflected a question about whether Biden should lead by example and just rest for several days. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not especially ambiguous when it comes to milder cases of COVID-19, such as the one that Biden appears to be experiencing, which do not require hospitalization. “Take care of yourself. Get rest and stay hydrated,” the guidelines say.

Jha dismissed any concerns about the president’s stamina, though he allowed that others may need the rest and relaxation that Biden has declined. “I believe people, if they feel ill, should absolutely get sick time to recover,” he said. “The president feels well and feels capable of continuing to work.”

Presidents have certainly worked through illness before. John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a painful adrenal deficiency that required ongoing medication. Franklin D. Roosevelt largely (if not entirely successfully) hid his paralysis, caused by polio, from the country. And in perhaps the most extreme case, a stroke so thoroughly debilitated Woodrow Wilson that his wife, Edith, effectively took over the presidency.

But the coronavirus pandemic comes amid the age of social media, when the president’s behavior is scrutinized intensely on Twitter. Perhaps more significant, the coronavirus is an ailment with which the entire world is grappling. As with his predecessor, Donald Trump, everything Biden does or does not do when it comes to the pandemic sends a message.

Of course, the war in Ukraine, inflation at home and any number of political crises — including his own deepening unpopularity — may make it difficult for the president to relax. And since his symptoms — runny nose, fatigue, a fever that appears to have broken by Friday morning, according to an update from his personal physician — are mild, he may well have concluded that he can and should continue with his presidential duties.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump removing his mask upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Oct. 5, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“I think it’s absolutely fine for the president to work through COVID, especially when his symptoms are mild and manageable,” physician and writer Lucy McBride told Yahoo News in a text message. “I encourage my own patients to know their own bodies and rest when they need to. An important part of health is trusting our own instincts.”

But since COVID-19 can cause cognitive symptoms, working while ill could prove counterproductive. If you do decide to get some work in, try to do it on a limited basis. “You may not even be aware of your brain fog,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Then there is the broader question of the message Biden could be sending about how Americans should regard the role of work in their lives, and not only when it comes to the coronavirus. Some may praise him for putting the business of the country ahead of his own health, but in a country where overworking has become a chronic condition, others see that message as misguided.

“While I’m grateful @POTUS is only experiencing mild COVID symptoms, I wish that he didn’t have to appear to be ‘working’ through it,” tweeted activist Rev. Wendy Hamilton. “Our cultural attachment to ‘workism’ makes people feel like they can’t take a day off to rest when they’re not feeling well. THAT's not healthy.”