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Biden set a bad example with his Covid case

Instead of taking time off during the course of his disease, he modeled the toxic work culture of pushing through illness.
President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden talks on the phone with his national security team from the Treaty Room in the residence of the White House in Washington on Friday.Adama Schultz / The White House via AP

On Wednesday, the White House reported that President Joe Biden had twice tested negative for Covid-19. The news was welcome but expected. When Biden first tested positive a few days ago, his having been vaccinated and boosted, combined with his access to the nation’s best doctors and latest treatments, nearly guaranteed him an uneventful acute illness course.  

Indeed, before his quick recovery, the White House had reported that the president was feeling well and that his case was “mild.” But even with his latest test results, Biden is still at risk of Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS CoV-2 infection, commonly known as long Covid, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found about one-fifth of Covid patients now have. One study found that up to a third of these Covid outpatients who didn’t require hospitalization were continuing to report long Covid symptoms nine months after the acute phase

Medical professionals have made it clear that the illness, whether mild or severe, is best treated by taking a break from the stress of work.

Though there is still much to learn about it, we know that inadequate rest can increase the risk of developing long Covid, the symptoms of which can be debilitating and are as diverse as prolonged fatigue, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, anxiety, insomnia, headaches and joint pain. While we don’t completely understand the triggers of long Covid, research suggests the onset could be linked to persistent inflammation in the body

That’s why I write with this simple request: Mr. President, please rest. 

Yet the images that emerged of the Covid-positive president showed us just the opposite: a man at work rather than one taking time off to treat his condition. No doubt these visuals were calculated to demonstrate that Biden is strong and healthy to thwart the never-ending ageist criticism he faces, to reinforce the efficacy of the Covid vaccines against extreme illness and to broadcast to our enemies that the commander in chief is still up to the job. 

But the president sent a different message to Americans here at home, and it’s one that has a dark underside. Instead of taking time off during the course of his disease, he modeled the toxic work culture of “pushing through illness.” While that ethos may be as American as apple pie, it’s also dangerous ... especially in the context of Covid. 

Medical professionals have made it clear that the illness, whether mild or severe, is best treated by taking a break from the stress of work. Dr. Caitlin McAuley of the University of Southern California told the Los Angeles Times that “at a minimum, you really should unplug for three to five days” if you’ve contracted the disease.

David Putrino, a physical therapist for the Mount Sinai Health System who was also quoted in the piece — published a few weeks before the onset of Biden’s illness — said the message of top officials working throughout their diagnoses is “minimizing the risk of long COVID and encouraging others to think, ‘If I have the virus, I can just push through it.’”

The administration should be doing everything in its power to keep people healthy in both the long and the short term by encouraging them to rest while sick. The White House should have used this opportunity to educate the public about how to minimize the risk of long-term illness and disability from Covid, as well as telegraph to employers that they need to give their workers time off to recover, whatever their ailments are. Biden also shouldn’t have played into the false notion that taking time off for illness is a sign of weakness or fragility.

I lost my father to Covid early in the pandemic. My mother became ill with Covid at the same time, and two years later she still struggles with balance and extreme fatigue, both symptoms of long Covid. Just last week, she had five doctor’s appointments in four days. Every week, I host a community call for people living with long Covid and suffering from Covid grief, and I have sat with hundreds of people as they’ve shared their Covid stories: disease, disability, eviction, financial free fall, isolation, suicidal ideation, hopelessness. We are not well.

We depend on our leaders to lead by taking bold action — and by modeling appropriate behavior that protects the most vulnerable among us. We need this more than ever as the government tries to shift to a framework of personal responsibility for dealing with Covid: suggesting mitigation measures based upon a person’s tolerance for personal risk versus a coordinated, data-informed plan to keep community transmission rates at bay and respond to outbreaks by taking action such as contact-tracing, testing and masking.  

This toxic idea of powering through illness isn’t just bad for Americans’ health; it’s also bad for the economy. A recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Business School identified poor company responses to Covid as a key factor in the Great Resignation — along with inadequate policies to protect workers’ overall health and well-being. 

And supporting employees in taking time off when they’re sick isn’t just good for individuals but good for business. Strong sick leave policies yield cost savings from greater workforce stability, increased productivity, lower health care costs and, of course, disease and illness prevention. Unfortunately, one-quarter of private-sector workers don’t have access to paid sick days to recover from illnesses. And now our own health institutions are reinforcing the drive to keep working rather than take adequate time for recovery. 

Beyond the example of Biden’s business-as-usual bout of Covid, the CDC now encourages people to go back to work after five days of Covid infections even without having tested negative, which is simply not enough. A growing body of evidence indicates that five days of isolation when continuing to test positive might not stop the spread of the disease.

Since we’re in the phase of the pandemic in which it’s every person for themselves, a sort of “Hunger Games” style of mitigation measures, I’ll appeal to the 79-year-old commander in chief on a personal basis. Pace yourself, Mr. President. Your grandkids, and all of America’s children, need you well.