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Congress remains vulnerable to Covid despite White House outbreak

While those working around Trump are tested for coronavirus daily, the Capitol has no such protocols.
Image: US Capitol
The U.S. Capitol in the early morning hours in Washington, on Oct. 2, 2020.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — The White House coronavirus outbreak, which has infected nearly 20 people in President Donald Trump’s circle, sheds new light on the lack of contact tracing and safety protocols in place for the House and Senate.

And while those working around President Donald Trump are tested daily, the Capitol has no such protocols.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ignored questions from reporters this week when asked if widespread testing should be offered in the Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on MSNBC: “Most of the people in our world who have come into contact and have been tested positive did not get the virus at the Capitol. It was in other encounters, including at the White House.”

Since the offer of rapid testing machines was initially made by the White House in May, Pelosi and McConnell have remained in agreement on one thing: no widespread testing on Capitol Hill, despite pressure from leaders on both sides of the aisle to do so.

“With just so many bodies coming in and out of here, I don’t understand why the speaker would continue to not have testing,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who supported the White House’s offer since July, told reporters on Friday.

After the outbreak in the White House and three senators who had recently been there announcing they had tested positive, high-ranking lawmakers endorsed endorsed widespread testing for the 535 members of Congress and Capitol staff.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in the hours after Trump’s diagnosis was announced last week that “this episode demonstrates that the Senate needs a testing and contact tracing program for senators, staff, and all who work in the Capitol complex.”

McConnell and Schumer agreed to recess the Senate until Oct. 19 following the outbreak, with the exception of committee hearings — meaning confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court will go on as planned beginning Oct. 12. It is not clear whether Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will require proof of negative tests for those attending in person.

Despite all of this, there remains no indication that the Capitol will have any kind of precautionary measures to prevent more cases within its walls. And even now, senators are being urged against precautionary testing unless there are symptoms present.

There is no temperature check system, no mandatory testing and no proof of a negative Covid-19 test required upon entry to the Capitol building. That means hundreds of lawmakers, their staff, Capitol workers and reporters enter the complex each day without any assurances that it is safe. And every weekend, most lawmakers travel all over the country back to their home states.

There are also no apparent contact tracing measures in place. NBC News has learned that individual offices each have their own protocols on reporting positive cases and exposures. The Office of the Attending Physician has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

On Wednesday, Schumer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, introduced a resolution that would mandate things like rapid testing for all who work in the Capitol complex, mask wearing in all Senate buildings, and proof of negative Covid-19 tests ahead of committee hearings.

Since February, 123 front-line workers including Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol employees have tested positive for Covid-19 or are presumed positive, according to House Administration Committee GOP spokeswoman Ashley Phelps. These numbers are not routinely disclosed to the public unless specifically requested, highlighting a lack of transparency, not just within the White House but up Pennsylvania Avenue as well.

After Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah tested positive, NBC News requested data on contact tracing within each office.

“The only other on-staff positive was the chief of staff, who was diagnosed in mid-September,” a spokesperson for Johnson wrote. “Our office has been working primarily remotely, so few people have been in contact with the Senator.”

A spokesperson for Tillis wrote that everyone in the Washington office who came in contact with the senator is getting tested and every test so far has been negative. However, the spokesperson told NBC to contact Tillis’ campaign for more information on his North Carolina office, but the campaign did not respond to inquiries.

In Lee’s office, there have been no other positive cases, a spokesperson wrote that “per the advice of the Attending Physician, Senator Lee has notified everyone he came into contact with from September 29th forward.”

Proponents for testing for all in the Capitol argue that their concern is not only about senators and members of Congress who have top of the line government health care, but that each lawmaker exposes dozens — from their staff to those who keep the Capitol complex running, to members of the public all over the country when they travel.

“I think it's a travesty that we don’t have a testing modality system in place,” Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told reporters.

“It’s clearly not just about members of Congress,” Davis said. “And if that’s the perception that it is, then don’t let us use [testing equipment].