To mask or not to mask? Biden goes both ways after the first lady tests positive for COVID-19

President Joe Biden appeared Tuesday wearing a mask for the first time in months, a day after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. But the president quickly dropped it during a ceremony honoring an 81-year-old Vietnam veteran, and the two unmasked octogenarians exchanged a warm handshake before parting.

The White House had earlier said Biden, who had tested negative for the virus earlier in the day, would wear a mask indoors but might take it off if he stood at a distance from others.

The reality has been somewhat different than the promised protocol, which is a reflection of how chaotic coronavirus precautions can become at a time when the national emergency has ended and mask requirements are ending as well, but new waves of the virus are peaking to reach. Hospitalizations are increasing, but not as much as before, and doctors are hoping for more vaccinations over the next month when a new booster shot becomes available.

Biden and Captain Larry Taylor, both of whom removed their masks after entering the East Room, stood side by side while a commendation was read and then Biden reached around the vet's body to grab the medal around his neck place. The two then faced each other and shook hands warmly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people exposed to the coronavirus should wear a mask and watch for symptoms for 10 days.

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

First Lady Jill Biden wanted to stay indoors in Rehoboth Beach for the week and organized substitute teachers for her classes at a community college in Northern Virginia. The president is expected to head to India for the Group of 20 summit on Thursday, and the White House said he would be tested again before leaving.

Biden was less than 15 minutes from the Medal of Honor event on Tuesday. CDC officials have used 15 minutes as a rough guide to how long casual contact between two people can last for the spread of COVID-19, although it's possible the virus could spread in less time.

The number of COVID hospitalizations has increased, from about 6,000 a week at the beginning of the summer to over 15,000 in 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 proportion of deaths attributed to COVID in the US was 2% at the end of August, compared to 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 wear a high-quality mask when around others indoors. The CDC also says that people who are not infected should avoid being near the infected person until the end of their home isolation period. According to the CDC, if you must be around an infected family member, it is important to always wear a quality mask, practice good hand hygiene, and take other infection-prevention measures.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden will follow CDC protocols and mask himself indoors unless he is far enough away from someone.

“They recommend a combination of masking, testing and monitoring for symptoms – he has no symptoms – so we'll be following those guidelines,” she said. She did not want to say whether Biden would be tested every day until he left for India.

Should the president contract the virus again — he had it last summer — he would have to forgo the trip, which also includes a stop in Vietnam and at a military base in Alaska to commemorate the September 11, 2001 attacks.

White House officials would not speculate on contingency plans should Biden fail to make the trip. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the administration has “long experience from the early days of administration in dealing with situations where COVID plays a role at summit meetings.”

“As you know, we've seen different executives attend events virtually at different times,” Sullivan said.

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

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

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AP writer Mike Stobbe of New York contributed to this report.