President Donald Trump rallied hundreds of cheering supporters for a campaign-style comeback event at the White House Saturday, jumping back into the election race nine days after being stopped in his tracks by Covid-19.
"I am feeling great!" Trump declared as he stepped out to a White House balcony -- tugging off his mask to address the crowd below, most of them masked under their red "Make America Great Again" hats, but with little social distancing.
"Get out and vote -- and I love you," Trump told supporters, who chanted back "USA" and "Four more years" throughout the address lasting just under 20 minutes.
Badly trailing his 77-year-old Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls less than four weeks from Election Day, Trump has been counting the days until he can hit the ground again.
The White House doctor announced late Saturday the president was "no longer considered a transmission risk."
Tests showed there was "no longer evidence of actively replicating virus" and that Trump's viral load was "decreasing," Sean Conley said -- though he did not state that the president is now virus-free.
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that, for mild or moderate Covid-19 cases, isolation and precautions can be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset, and once patients have been fever free for 24 hours. However, the severity of Trump's illness has not been confirmed.
Saturday's event set the stage for a full-fledged campaign rally Monday in Florida -- followed immediately by two more in battleground Pennsylvania Tuesday and Iowa Wednesday.
Biden has slammed as "reckless" Trump's determination to rally huge crowds during the pandemic -- but the president has brushed the concerns aside, insisting America has the upper hand against the virus despite a death toll of 213,000 and rising.
"I want you to know our nation is going to defeat this terrible China virus," Trump said.
"It's going to disappear. It is disappearing."
"We are producing powerful therapies and drugs, and we are healing the sick and we are going to recover, and the vaccine is coming out very quickly, in record time as you know."
'The hard truth'
While Trump, 74, has declared himself recovered -- and appeared smiling and energetic at the White House -- doubts linger over his health, with the president's doctor accused of a lack of transparency with the public.
Trump's biggest liability -- overwhelming public dissatisfaction over his handling of the pandemic -- has returned as the headline issue of the campaign thanks to his own infection, with cases again on the rise nationwide.
The seven-day average of new daily cases recorded between October 3 and 9 -- 47,184 -- was the highest since the week of August 13 to 19, according to an AFP analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
"Over 213,000 Americans have died from this virus -- and the hard truth is it didn't have to happen this way," Biden tweeted Saturday.
For months, taking their cue from a president who mostly shunned and at times mocked the wearing of masks, White House advisors were rarely seen masked inside the West Wing.
Since Trump and his wife Melania tested positive, the mood has shifted and mask wearing was compulsory at Saturday's event.
A similar gathering two weeks ago, to announce the nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, has been singled out as a likely source of many of the dozens of positive cases since linked to the White House.
Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has referred to it as a "superspreader event."
Many questions remain unanswered about the White House outbreak, with more than a dozen cases recorded in the president's inner circle, including his spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.
"When was the president's last negative Covid test?" asked Pete Buttigieg, a former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, now tipped for a prominent role in a Biden administration should he defeat Trump on November 3.
Biden, vice president under Barack Obama, is currently close to 10 points ahead in national polls with a solid lead in key battlegrounds.
And in the Republican camp, there is increasingly palpable concern about the state of the race.
"If on Election Day people are angry and they've given up hope and they're depressed... I think it could be a terrible election," Senator Ted Cruz warned this week.
"I think we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress, that it could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions."