President Joe Biden will seek to reduce direct contact, such as shaking hands, during his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week because of COVID-19 risks, White House officials said on Wednesday.
The apparent shift in policy comes as the White House was facing questions about whether Biden would be photographed shaking hands or meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden departed for Israel late on Tuesday after spending part of the late afternoon and early evening shaking multiple hands on the White House South Lawn during a congressional picnic.
Biden, who called the Saudi government a "pariah" for its role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi, is reluctantly meeting the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence believe was behind the killing, during his stop in Saudi Arabia.
"We're in a phase of the pandemic now where we are seeking to reduce contact and to increase masking ... to minimize spread," U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One.
"We're trying to minimize contact as much as possible," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The White House on Tuesday urged Americans over age 50 to get vaccination boosters against COVID-19 as the fast-spreading Omicron BA.5 subvariant takes hold across the United States and said doing so now would not preclude another shot this fall.
Biden will participate in a bilateral meeting with the king and the crown prince on Friday, but Biden in recent weeks has sought to emphasize the meeting with a broader set of Gulf leaders.
Jean-Pierre said no press conference was scheduled during Biden's Saudi Arabia trip.
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