How safe would a ‘moon suit’ Senate vote on Barrett be?

‘It’s cut and dry, whether you are a senator or not,’ one epidemiologist says of following COVID-19 protocols

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., left, and Space Subcommittee Chair Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., talk with a man modeling a possible prototype of the future suit for the upcoming mission to the moon in the Rayburn Building in Washington on July 25, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., left, and Space Subcommittee Chair Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., talk with a man modeling a possible prototype of the future suit for the upcoming mission to the moon in the Rayburn Building in Washington on July 25, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 7, 2020 at 5:00am, Updated at 5:16pm

Senate Republicans are pressing forward with a vote by month’s end on Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, even if doing so could risk the health of senators and scores of Capitol Hill workers.

Three Senate Republicans have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last several days, and at least two others are self-isolating because they were exposed to the highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus. But the global pandemic, which is now tearing through Washington’s highest levels of power, won’t stop the vote, at least according to GOP lawmakers.

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said on Monday that he would go to the Capitol to vote for Barrett, even if he were still infected with the coronavirus and contagious.

“But if we have to go in and vote, I’ve already told the leadership, I’ll go in in a moon suit. We think this is pretty important,” Johnson said during an interview on 630 KHOW in Denver.

It is doubtful that Johnson is talking about an actual NASA spacesuit, but more likely he is referencing the full-body protective gear that medical professionals wear when working with highly infectious patients, which are reminiscent of astronaut flight suits.

Johnson and others have pushed for the confirmation vote, which would give conservatives a 6-3 majority on the high court, as little time remains before the Nov. 3 election. Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hopes to send Barrett’s nomination to the floor by Oct. 22, allowing for a vote by the end of the month.

At the same time, they have a thin margin for victory. If the three senators who have tested positive for the coronavirus are still contagious and don’t vote, Vice President Mike Pence would have to break a tie if the vote fell strictly along party lines. And even that is not likely: Susan Collins of Maine has signaled her opposition, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has said the winner of the presidential election should make the choice of whom to nominate to fill the seat of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Johnson isn’t alone in trying to game out how he might be able to vote on the Barrett nomination despite a COVID-19 diagnosis. North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis is also exploring his options, telling Fox News on Tuesday morning that he feels “great” and is “on a path to be cleared and be back in the Capitol for the hearings.”

When asked specifically about Johnson’s comment regarding going to the Capitol to vote while positive and if he’d do the same, he told Fox, “I think so.”

Tillis emphasized that the mild symptoms he experienced over the weekend, after testing positive on Oct. 2, had subsided. Public health experts have made clear for months that asymptomatic spread is common.

He plans to participate in the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Barrett virtually at first, and then possibly attend in person, depending on instructions from his doctor. Hearings are scheduled to begin Monday.

“I have to clear,” said Tillis, referencing the need for a negative test. “I’m following the doctor’s guidance. I’m in self-quarantine. But as it’s progressing, my guess is I will join virtually for the first day or two and then I should be cleared for the vote later in the week.”

A representative for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the other member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to test positive, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

For Johnson, or any other senator, to enter the Senate chamber while still symptomatic or testing positive for the disease would violate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, according to George Washington University’s Emily Smith.

The guidance states that people should isolate until at least 10 days from the onset of their symptoms and go at least 24 hours without a fever with other symptoms improving — no exemption for a “moon suit,” Smith said.

“It’s cut and dry, whether you are a senator or not. The guidance is the guidance so that you don’t pose a health threat to anyone else,” Smith said.

But such risks do not appear to be deterring Republicans, even those in high-risk categories, like the elderly.

Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley, third in the presidential succession line as Senate president pro tempore, said he will continue his usual COVID-19 precautions of wearing face masks, using plenty of disinfectant and social distancing in meetings to stay healthy. Grassley, 87, said he’s “pretty cautious.”

Community risk

There are 535 elected members of the House and Senate, but it is the thousands of legislative branch employees and contractors toiling behind the scenes who make the operations of Congress possible.

Even with robust precautionary measures and bare-bones staffing, dozens of people could be exposed to the virus during a floor vote. No Senate session proceeds without clerks, floor staffers, doorkeepers and Capitol Police on-site, as well as a team of Architect of the Capitol custodial staff cleaning up after them.

Johnson argued that using the kind of extensive personal protective equipment, or PPE, normally seen in hospital settings should make a trip to the Senate floor safe.

“So you can go into a medical clinic and you can, you know, take the precautions and do it safely. But we wouldn’t be able to do that on the floor of the Senate? You know, where there’s a will, there’s a way we can do these things,” Johnson said.

Maria Sundaram, an epidemiologist at the health research nonprofit ICES in Toronto, said Johnson’s plan would waste some of the limited extensive PPE that is available for health care workers. She also pointed out that those protective suits are worn as part of a broader system to prevent infection.

“You wouldn’t walk around at your place of work with your chest split open because it’s safe to do that in the operating room,” Sundaram said.

Both Sundaram and Smith agreed that just using PPE, even Johnson’s hypothetical “moon suit,” does not guarantee safety.

“Correctly donning and doffing PPE is a skill for trained professionals, and to do it correctly to make sure it works takes training and practice,” Smith said.

Even then, the equipment only reduces the chance of infection, and slip-ups happen. Through July, more than 100,000 health care workers have caught the coronavirus and more than 600 have died, according to the most recent data from the CDC. Another report from the National Nurses Union says that through the middle of September, more than 1,700 health care workers have died of COVID-19.

“Even among highly trained people with PPE, we still see infections, and those numbers are always higher than you expect them to be,” Smith said.

Beyond that, if Johnson or any other COVID-19-positive senator put on the suit correctly, Smith said personal protective equipment is designed and tested based on how well it protects the wearer from outside pathogens, not the other way around.

Front-line workers on Capitol Hill have already been hit hard by COVID-19, reaching 123 cases among legislative branch employees or contractors as of September. This total has increased by 20 since Aug. 28.

The count includes 46 Capitol Police employees, 42 Architect of the Capitol employees and 35 contractors working on the Cannon Building renovation project. These numbers reflect total cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ellyn Ferguson and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.