As More Lawmakers Test Positive, Congress Gets A Tough Reminder Of Coronavirus Risk

Aug 6, 2020
Originally published on August 7, 2020 7:35 am

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva is nervous.

Last week, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee tested positive for COVID-19 in the latest outbreak on Capitol Hill.

And although Grijalva is asymptomatic, he's worried because he's 72 years old and an admitted on-and-off smoker.

"You get scared; your family gets scared," he said from his Washington, D.C., home, where he is now quarantining. "If you're not afraid of this disease, there's something fundamentally wrong."

In a matter of one week, three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus: Grijalva, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert and Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis. Gohmert and Davis also said they are asymptomatic.

The latest outbreak is a reminder of the risks for Capitol Hill as members continue to meet in an attempt to negotiate a new wave of aid to address the coronavirus. Unlike regular, widespread testing programs at workplaces from the White House to the NBA, Congress is going without.

"It's unbelievable that six months into a pandemic, we don't have a testing infrastructure that lets us protect members of Congress," said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard Global Health Institute.

So far, Congress has seen about 100 cases among its members and workers, including more than a dozen lawmakers. And last month, Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan said his longtime staffer, Gary Tibbetts, had died after contracting COVID-19.

Davis, a key advocate who has called for widespread coronavirus testing on Capitol Hill, said Wednesday he sought a test after noticing he had a slightly elevated temperature. His wife, a cancer survivor, and staff have since tested negative.

"My staff and I take COVID-19 very seriously. My wife is a nurse and a cancer survivor, which puts her in an at-risk category like so many Americans," Davis said. "My office and I have always followed and will continue to follow CDC guidelines, use social distancing, and wear masks or face coverings when social distancing cannot be maintained."

Grijalva tested positive last Friday, just days after Gohmert, a member of Grijalva's natural resources committee, did as well. A White House screening caught Gohmert's diagnosis a week ago Wednesday — a day after he sat by Grijalva during a committee hearing.

Gohmert, who has been known to dismiss masks and other precautions for the pandemic, returned to his Capitol office after his test. He was attempting to travel with President Trump for a trip to Texas but that was canceled as a result.

The Capitol's Office of the Attending Physician, a small, on-campus doctor's office, has advised a series of precautions for members and workers, including mask wearing and social distancing. However, in light of Gohmert's case, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instituted a new mask mandate that will allow the forcible removal of a member by U.S. Capitol Police if they don't comply.

Pelosi says the Capitol still isn't in a position to institute widespread testing because there's still equipment shortages making it difficult to test its more than 500 lawmakers and workforce of 20,000. Those that do have widespread testing programs in place, such as pro sports organizations, face their own controversy for gaining access. Some experts including Jha say national testing levels of about 5 million tests per week now should be closer to 30 million.

"There are many people in the country who should be tested, should have access in order to quantify the problem, but also to trace and to treat so that people don't die," Pelosi recently told reporters. "And I don't think it's a good idea for members of the Congress to say, 'We should have it but maybe not necessarily the people who work here at the expense of others.' "

In May, Pelosi and the Senate's top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued a joint statement turning down the Trump administration's onetime offer of 1,000 Abbott Laboratories rapid tests — which was considered a small drop in the bucket, many say. At the time, Pelosi and McConnell said Congress shouldn't cut ahead of front-line workers and others in dire need of tests, which were more scarce at the time.

Also, the Abbott tests remain a challenge to scale up for larger workforces like the Capitol and are more suitable for smaller groups such as the White House, experts say.

However, Jha says Congress should instead be testing its members and employees weekly or more through other options.

"If they don't, to me, that — to be perfectly honest — is a travesty," Jha says.

Jha said the Capitol could use newer so-called antigen tests. Preferably, about 6,000 could be tested daily since antigen tests are more accessible today, can be scaled for larger workforces and can provide results within minutes.

Such antigen tests have lower sensitivity levels than the more traditional polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, Jha notes. However, when used regularly and frequently to test a certain population, there are better odds of catching an active case, he argues. In some cases, PCR tests, while more accurate, can also face longer delays for results.

A congressional aide told NPR that by this summer, the Capitol's Office of the Attending Physician could only conduct about a dozen or so PCR tests a week. And that falls woefully short of the Capitol's needs, experts argue.

In May, House Republicans, led in part by Davis, also pitched another plan to partner with the military to test about 6,000 or so a week on Capitol Hill. But that also may not be enough, experts say.

However, Jha says a larger testing plan is also a matter of prioritizing Congress. With national tests at a higher level now than just a few months ago, the Capitol is in a better position to install such a program, Jha argues.

"I just think Congress needs to be a priority," he said. "A lot of older members, it's high risk and, also, they are the U.S. Congress. This is a really important moment for Congress to be able to be protected."

When Grijalva first learned of his results, he admits he was angry and then asked questions of "why me?" And while he says he can't blame Gohmert directly, he is sure he caught the illness at the Capitol.

"I've been doing everything right. I got masks, I got shields, I got gloves, which goes to the point of how insidious this virus is," Grijalva said.

The father of three daughters and grandfather to five children says his family reacted with their own fear — and anger. From Arizona, his family has sent him a round of herbal treatments, vitamins, a new thermometer and a blood oxygen sensor.

And they're checking on him frequently.

"I said, 'I'm not supposed to stress. Quit calling me every 20 minutes,' " he says, laughing.

He says he is continuing to do well. And he's hoping he clears this week without symptoms, which he was told is the critical window to escape serious concerns of the illness.

Meanwhile, he's relearning a lesson and he hopes any of his colleagues like Gohmert, who have at times dismissed precautions, will as well.

"This pandemic doesn't care what your party affiliation or your political ideology might be," Grijalva said. "It does not care."

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So college campuses are risky right now; so is just walking around the hallways in Congress. Lawmakers are in that Capitol building. They're working. They're in meetings. And they're doing so without a comprehensive testing program to track how the pandemic is spreading among lawmakers, among their staff. The risks were made plain when they were trying to reach a deal on a coronavirus relief bill and several lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19. But rapid testing and contact tracing is especially challenging when members of Congress are just traveling back and forth from hot spots all the time.

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva is 72 years old and an off-and-on smoker who tested positive for COVID-19. The father with three daughters and five grandchildren is asymptomatic but nervous.

RAUL GRIJALVA: If you're not afraid of this disease, there's something fundamentally wrong. You know, you have to be a little bit scared of it.

GRISALES: Last week, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing where he sat by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who has dismissed masks. The next day, Gohmert tested positive during a White House screening, and Grijalva got his results three days later. These days, Congress can only test about a dozen or so people a week.

ASHISH JHA: It's unbelievable that, six months into a pandemic, we don't have a testing infrastructure that lets us protect members of Congress.

GRISALES: That's Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently installed a new mask mandate but doesn't want members to get special treatment.


NANCY PELOSI: I don't think it's a good idea for members of the Congress to say, we should have it but maybe not necessarily the people who work here at the expense of others.

GRISALES: So far, Capitol Hill has seen about 100 cases, including more than a dozen lawmakers and the death of one longtime House staffer. Months ago, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned down the Trump administration's offer of a thousand tests. Experts say that's a small drop in the bucket. Jha says the Capitol should be testing its more than 500 lawmakers and 20,000-member workforce weekly or more.

JHA: If they don't, to me that is - to be perfectly honest - that's a travesty.

GRISALES: For now, Grijalva's family has sent him herbal treatments, a new thermometer and blood oxygen sensors as he quarantines in D.C. He says he's been taking all the precautions, but he's relearning that lesson now.

GRIJALVA: This pandemic doesn't care what your party affiliation or your political ideology might be. It does not care.

GRISALES: And absent widespread testing, for now the best protection members can get is wearing masks on Capitol Hill.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SOLITARY BEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.