This paragraph, however, buried within it an important point about the broader pandemic. When Donald Trump was president, his preferred approach (manifested by advisers like radiologist Scott Atlas) was to simply return to normal as much as possible, allowing endemic infection to bolster the population’s immunity. But that meant millions of people contracted the virus before vaccines and before effective treatments – so that meant hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Avoiding contracting the virus for as long as possible, as Biden did, means having the best chance of a quick and full recovery.
Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data bulletin from Philip Bump
Hospitalization or death aren’t the only negative effects of infection, of course. Many who contract the disease will see lingering medium to long-term effects. But that doesn’t take away from the fact: being infected with the virus later increases the chances that better treatments will be available for the variants.
Consider the difference between Biden contracting the virus and Trump having. Trump caught it in the fall of 2020, presumably the original variant of the virus that proved so deadly that winter. There were no vaccines; therapies were limited. Trump did receive monoclonal antibody treatment which he described as a “cure”, but his talk about that treatment was partly aimed at convincing the country once again that the pandemic was all but over. (His commitment to making the therapy universally available didn’t quite work.)
After vaccines became widely available (50% of the country was vaccinated last August) and with new variants making up a large part of the infection pool, the risk to Biden (or Barack Obama earlier this year) was considerably decreased. These presidential infections are shown on the graphs below, which compare new cases to hospitalizations a week later or deaths two weeks later.
The graphs above only use confirmed cases, those that have produced a positive test and have been registered with health authorities. Many infections these days are confirmed by home testing and go unreported – and many are simply never detected. There are estimates of the number of people infected at any time during the pandemic, such as one compiled by Jungsik Noh of Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
If we compare estimated infections on a given day with hospitalizations and deaths, the toll of omicron variants is even lower.
If we directly compare the numbers of cases and hospitalizations/deaths, you can see that the omicron variants produced weaker effects. You can see each new surge emerge in the graphs below, with the initial iteration of the virus resulting in a large number of deaths with relatively few cases and the green omicron surge producing many cases with relatively few deaths.
Then there is the blue pattern, indicating recent sub-variants. It is above the other groups: more cases, but still fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Moving the blue line up to the right – more cases but no additional deaths – is much better than pushing it to the right.
Shortly after testing positive, Trump – at high risk of contracting the virus for several reasons – had to be flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment. Biden may get worse, but, so far, such an ominous response seems unlikely.
It’s the state of the pandemic as the oldest president in US history contracts a virus that’s especially dangerous to older Americans. By avoiding infection so far, Biden has significantly decreased his likelihood of serious illness or death.