White House: Biden to ‘minimize contact’ on Middle East trip due to COVID variants

President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday that President Biden would seek to “minimize” physical contact with other officials while on his trip to the Middle East, citing the rise of new COVID-19 variants.  

“The president takes a range of COVID precautions and additional ones when he travels,” Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We’re trying to minimize contact as much as possible where we can.”  

Her comments followed reports that the White House had informed Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office that Biden would avoid shaking hands during the visit.  

Jean-Pierre denied that the decision to minimize Biden’s contact with other people on the foreign trip represented a change in policy, though the president has in recent days appeared at large gatherings in the U.S. where he has shaken hands with other people.  

When pressed on whether Biden was seeking to avoid being photographed shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while in Saudi Arabia, Jean-Pierre said that the decision was made on recommendation from Biden’s doctor and reiterated he would seek to “minimize contact as much as possible.”  

Later Wednesday, Biden was seen fist-bumping some Israeli officials but shaking hands with others upon arriving in the country and later when he toured Israel’s Iron Beam air defense system.

Jean-Pierre noted that the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the COVID-19 omicron variant currently make up the majority of cases in the U.S. White House health officials briefed reporters on Tuesday on the plan to combat BA.5, which focuses on access to vaccinations, COVID-19 treatments, masks and testing.  

The White House says it takes extra precautions around Biden to prevent him from contracting COVID-19, including testing officials before they come in close contact with the president and requiring mask use in West Wing meetings. Jean-Pierre noted that Biden, who is vaccinated and boosted, tested negative before departing for the trip.  

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also said that White House officials were looking to increase masking and reduce contact at this point in the pandemic.   

However, Biden has also resumed large events at the White House and on domestic trips. On a trip to Ohio last week, for instance, Biden spoke to a large crowd inside a high school and spent about an hour taking selfies and interacting with guests. He attended the congressional picnic at the White House on Tuesday before departing for Israel, though the event was held outside, which health experts recommend to reduce the spread of the virus.

Updated at 10:07 a.m.

Tags Biden Karine Jean-Pierre Mohammed bin Salman Yair Lapid
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