Joe Biden’s intermittent mask wearing shows how messy COVID precautions are now that infection rates are rising

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President Joe Biden turned up in a mask for the first time in months on Tuesday, a day after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. But the president quickly ditched it during a ceremony honoring an 81-year-old Vietnam veteran, and the two unmasked octogenarians shared a hearty handshake before they parted.

The White House had said earlier that Biden, who had tested negative for the virus earlier in the day, would wear a mask indoors, but that he might remove it when standing at a distance from others.

The reality looked somewhat different from the promised protocol, a reflection of how messy coronavirus precautions can become at a time when the national emergency has ended and so have mask mandates, but the virus keeps spreading. Hospitalizations are up, but not like they were before, and doctors are hoping to get more shots in arms next month when a new booster becomes available.

Biden and Capt. Larry Taylor, who both took off their masks after entering the East Room, stood side by side as a commendation was read aloud, and then Biden reached around the vet’s body to place the medal around his neck. The two then stood face-to-face and shook hands heartily.

People who are exposed to the coronavirus should wear a mask and monitor for symptoms for 10 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden and his wife had traveled together to Florida on Saturday to inspect damage from Hurricane Idalia. The Bidens then spent part of the Labor Day weekend at their Delaware beach house before the president traveled without his wife on Monday to a union event in Philadelphia and then back to the White House.

First lady Jill Biden planned to remain at the Rehoboth Beach home for the week and was arranging substitute teachers for her classes at a community college in northern Virginia. The president is set to depart for the Group of 20 summit in India on Thursday, and the White House said he would test again before departure.

Biden was at Tuesday’s Medal of Honor event for less than 15 minutes. CDC officials have used 15 minutes as a rough guideline for how long casual contact between two people can be for COVID-19 to spread, although it is possible for the virus to spread in less time.

COVID hospitalizations have been increasing, from about 6,000 a week at the beginning of the summer to more than 15,000 the week of Aug. 19, the most recent week of federal data. But in 96% of the country, COVID hospitalizations are considered low, according to the CDC.

The percentage of U.S. deaths attributed to COVID in late August – 2% — was up from 1.7% the week before.

The CDC recommends that people infected with COVID stay home and away from others for at least five days and to wear a high-quality mask when indoors around others. The CDC also says that people who are not infected should avoid being around the infected person until their home isolation period ends. If they must be near an infected family member, it’s important to consistently wear a high-quality mask, practice good hand hygiene and take other infection-prevention measures, the CDC says.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden would be following CDC protocols and would mask indoors unless he was far enough away from someone.

“They recommend a combination of things, which is masking, testing and monitoring for symptoms — he has no symptoms — so we’re going to follow those guidelines,” she said. She wouldn’t say whether Biden would be tested every day until he left for India.

If the president were to come down with the virus again — he had it last summer — he’d have to skip the trip, which also includes a stop in Vietnam and at a military base in Alaska to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

White House officials wouldn’t speculate about contingency plans if Biden could not make the trip. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration had “long experience from the early days of the administration in managing for situations in which COVID plays a role in summits.”

“As you know, we’ve seen various leaders at various times participate virtually in events,” Sullivan said.

The Bidens had COVID-19 last summer, which is about the last time the president wore a mask in public. He also said recently that he is planning to request more money from Congress to develop a new coronavirus vaccine.

Officials already are expecting updated COVID-19 vaccines that contain one version of the omicron strain, called XBB.1.5. It’s an important change from today’s combination shots, which mix the original coronavirus strain with last year’s most common omicron variants. But there will always be a need for updated vaccines as the virus continues to mutate.

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