Calls grow for more COVID-19 testing of lawmakers, staff

Lee said he sought medical advice Thursday after experiencing symptoms consistent with 'longtime allergies'

From left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee markup on judicial nominations in Russell Building on Thursday. On Friday Lee announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee markup on judicial nominations in Russell Building on Thursday. On Friday Lee announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:37pm, Updated at 4:43pm

A deluge of positive COVID-19 tests that included Sen. Mike Lee, President Donald Trump and his aide Hope Hicks prompted more calls for a testing program in the Capitol and its surrounding office buildings.

“This episode demonstrates that the Senate needs a testing and contact tracing program for Senators, staff, and all who work in the Capitol complex,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement Friday. “We simply cannot allow the administration's cavalier attitude to adversely affect this branch of government.”

In a statement released Friday, Lee said he sought medical advice Thursday after experiencing symptoms consistent with “longtime allergies.”

“Unlike the test I took just a few days ago while visiting the White House, yesterday’s test came back positive,” the Utah Republican said.

Lee was seen wearing a mask before a Thursday Senate Judiciary Committee markup but about an hour into the meeting he was maskless. He was spotted sitting close to senators at the White House on Saturday at the announcement where Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee. Lee met with Barrett on Tuesday.

Multiple members of Congress could have been exposed to the coronavirus when they flew with the president and his senior staff on Air Force One to recent events, such as the president’s trip to Minnesota on Wednesday and Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland. Members of the administration were back-and-forth between the White House and Capitol Hill all week as lawmakers met with Barrett and negotiations on a pandemic aid package continued. 

The positive diagnosis from both Trump and Lee underscores the risk that senators may be taking if they continue to meet with Barrett, who spent time in close proximity to both men within the past week.

While the White House says that Barrett is being tested daily, for her or anybody else who has been in close contact with a confirmed case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people should still self-isolate under those circumstances.

The CDC’s guidance on testing says that “A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test,” and “Even if you have a negative test, you should still self-isolate for 14 days” from the time you were in close contact with an infected individual.

Testing talk

It is not yet clear if the positive tests at the White House and on the Hill will prompt Congress to implement testing for lawmakers, staff or visitors. But it has gotten the conversation restarted.

Since the virus emerged in the U.S. in February, there has been no testing regimen for members of the House and Senate.

Some members have gotten testing on their own, but there’s no wider plan or strategy within the Capitol community, despite pressure from some members.

Schumer’s call for testing is the most recent, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has been calling for a more robust testing regimen for months. He reiterated the need for a testing strategy on the Capitol campus Friday in remarks to reporters. 

Several lawmakers have said they are self-quarantining and seeking testing, while others have said they are getting tested but won’t self-quarantine. 

Rep. Jim Jordan, who attended the debate and flew with the president, though he said he had “brief” contact with Trump, told Fox and Friends Friday he feels fine and “had a great workout yesterday.”

The Ohio Republican, who has been known to not wear a mask around the Capitol, said he would attend a Friday hearing “virtually from our office.”

Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. and Chris Coons, D-Del., attended Tuesday’s debate.

And Minnesota Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber were with the president on Air Force One on Wednesday in Minnesota.

Hagedorn, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, was tested for COVID-19 Friday morning and expects results later in the day, his spokesman Jacob Murphy said.

Hagedorn spoke directly with Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan and was told his interactions with the president and others who tested positive didn’t meet the “criteria of close contact,” Murphy said.

He was advised to “continue his official duties, such as voting on the House floor, wear a mask, and delay air travel until the results of his COVID-19 test are confirmed as ‘negative.’”

Later in the day, Hagedorn said his test came back negative. “This morning, I was tested for COVID-19 out of extreme precaution after consulting with the Attending Physician of the U.S. Congress. The test came back ‘negative’ and I am feeling well. President Trump, our wonderful First Lady and all dealing with illness remain in my prayers,” Hagedorn in a statement.

Stauber’s spokesman Kelsey Mix told CQ Roll Call: “The House Attending Physician deemed the Congressman to be ‘low-risk’ and advised the Congressman to continue his Congressional duties, including voting, as long as he practiced social distancing and wore a mask.”

Emmer released a statement on Friday that said “I am not exhibiting symptoms and have been tested for COVID by the Office of the Attending Physician and should receive my results within 24 hours.”

A spokeswoman for Blackburn confirmed media reports that the senator had tested negative for COVID-19. On Tuesday she posted a photo of herself on Twitter with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Jordan. None wore masks.

Coons, a surrogate for White House hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden, tweeted he “was tested for COVID-19 again this morning and received a negative result.” Biden tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday, according to a statement from his physician.

Andrew Siddons, Katherine Tully-McManus and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.