By Susan Heavey and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden appeared virtually at a White House meeting of economic advisers on Friday to highlight his good health a day after testing positive for COVID-19.
Speaking remotely at the meeting to discuss White House efforts to lower gas prices, Biden appeared vigorous and in good spirits but with a noticeably deeper voice, hours after his doctor released a statement saying his symptoms had improved.
“I’m feeling much better than I sound," he said, apologizing for intermittent coughs as he described recent efforts to lower gasoline prices. "Gas prices are coming down. In fact, gas prices have fallen every day," he said.
Seated as a desk in the White House residence and flanked by a bag of Halls cough drops and a box of tissues that was quickly removed before his remarks began, Biden gave a thumbs-up when asked by reporters how he felt.
Biden, 79, tested positive for COVID on Thursday, when the White House said he was experiencing mild symptoms and would continue working but in isolation. His diagnosis comes as a highly contagious subvariant of the coronavirus drives a new wave of cases in the United States.
A letter released from the White House physician, Kevin O'Connor, said Biden reached 99.4 F (37.4 C) on Thursday night but he responded favorably to Tylenol and was breathing normally.
"His voice is deeper this morning. His pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation remain normal, on room air," O'Connor said. Biden has a runny nose, fatigue and occasional dry cough, the doctor said.
At the Friday afternoon briefing, White House COVID-19 Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha stressed that the 99.4 F reading was the highest Biden had experienced during his illness. Jha noted that Biden's vitals had remained in the normal range but admitted the president had used an inhaler a couple of times since testing positive.
Overall, Jha said Biden was doing better, noting that he had slept well and ate his breakfast and lunch. "He joked that his one regret was that his appetite had not changed," Jha said, adding that the president "was, and is, in a very good mood."
On Friday, as the White House sought to convey a sense of normalcy, it also released another photo of Biden signing legislation a day earlier wearing a black mask.
"The president said he is still putting in eight-plus hours of work a day," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a daily briefing.
O'Connor said two medicines that Biden takes, Eliquis for atrial fibrillation and cholesterol drug Crestor, are being held back temporarily to avoid interfering with his treatment course of the antiviral drug Paxlovid. He said low-dose aspirin is being added to Biden's treatment as an alternative blood thinner.
"The president is tolerating treatment well," he said.
Biden, who is the oldest person ever to serve as president of the United States, is due to hold a total of three virtual meetings with his staff on Friday, including his economic, legislative and national security aides, according to his public schedule released by the White House.
He began experiencing typical COVID symptoms and, once diagnosed with the virus, was immediately put on Paxlovid.
Fully vaccinated and twice boosted, Biden said he was "doing well" in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday. In the 21-second clip, he also said he was "getting a lot of work done" and would continue with his duties.
Jha said it was still unclear where exactly Biden, who recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, contracted the coronavirus.
Speaking at the briefing on Friday afternoon, Jha also said the White House's medical unit had identified and informed 17 close contacts of Biden's, including senior staff, and said so far none of the staff had tested positive.
U.S. COVID cases have jumped more than 25% in the last month, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as the new BA.5 subvariant takes hold there and across the world.
'THE BEST CARE THERE IS'
Biden had been planning to travel to his home state of Delaware this weekend but instead first lady Jill Biden, who has so far tested negative, will stay there while the president isolates in the White House.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has also tested negative.
Paxlovid, the Pfizer Inc antiviral drug the president is taking, has been shown to reduce the risk of severe disease by nearly 90% in high-risk patients if given within the first five days of infection, but has also been associated with rebound infections in some cases.
Even with the powerful antiviral drug and vaccines, a small percentage of older people do wind up in the hospital.
However, health experts have noted that Biden appears to be in relatively good health for his age, echoed by the president's physical in late 2021.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Trevor Hunnicutt and Katharine Jackson and Steve Holland; Writing by Susan Heavey and Alexandra Alper; editing by Trevor Hunnicutt, John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)