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Positive Tests Highlight Lack Of Broad Coronavirus Testing Plan For Congress

The lack of a widespread coronavirus testing program for members of Congress and their staff has become stark in the wake of positive tests for the virus.
Alex Brandon
The lack of a widespread coronavirus testing program for members of Congress and their staff has become stark in the wake of positive tests for the virus.

Updated at 8:32 p.m. ET

Top congressional leaders are looking at whether it's time to install a widespread coronavirus testing program on Capitol Hill in the wake of positive tests for President Trump and now two Republican senators — Mike Lee, R-Utah, Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

"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 Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday. "We simply cannot allow the administration's cavalier attitude to adversely affect this branch of government."

"It is imperative that all results be made public in order to contain a possible outbreak and so we can determine the need for senators and staff to quarantine or self-isolate."

Speaking Friday from his home state of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed calls for a testing and tracing program, saying the chamber has been following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that they're working well. He said he has been tested before but declined to say whether he has been tested since learning of the president's results.

The Capitol has struggled with plans to install a widespread testing program since the pandemic's beginnings, and it's likely to get a closer look in the wake of positive tests for the president and first lady Melania Trump.

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., examined options for a possible testing plan and are expected to make a decision before the House returns from its next recess. The House was due to leave for recess after votes Friday.

It was unclear where Lee might have been exposed to the virus. He said he began to experience allergy-like symptoms and tested for the coronavirus out an abundance of caution. He said he had tested negative during a White House visit several days ago but tested positive Thursday.

Tillis said he has no symptoms and is feeling well, and that he is routinely tested. He is frequently seen wearing masks on Capitol Hill.

Lee and Tillis, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are the third and fourth senators to test positive, joining more than a dozen House members who have done so. Lee said he will be back to work in time for the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Those hearings are scheduled to begin Oct. 12.

The cases are a reminder of the risks for Capitol Hill as members have met in an attempt to conduct usual business, negotiate a new wave of aid to address the coronavirus and now look to Barrett's confirmation. Congress — unlike the White House, professional sports and other venues — has gone without a widespread testing regime.

It would be a large undertaking to install a widespread and regular testing program for the Capitol's more than 500 members and 20,000-strong workforce.

Early on during the pandemic, lawmakers largely stayed away from the Capitol. But as they began returning two months later in May, the debate on testing protocols was well underway.

That month, Pelosi and McConnell issued a rare joint statement turning down the Trump administration's onetime offer of 1,000 Abbott Laboratories rapid tests. The tests were considered a small drop in the bucket to test members twice weekly. Pelosi and McConnell said Congress shouldn't cut ahead of front-line workers and others in dire need of testing.

Since then, however, testing has ramped up across the country, but Pelosi and McConnell haven't publicly shifted from their original stances. However, the calls for testing among rank-and-file members has grown, with leaders such as Schumer joining them.

Medical experts have agreed, saying that Congress should be screening for spread of the virus. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has said Congress needs a testing program that can be scaled up to take samples from thousands on the Capitol's campus on a biweekly basis.

One option could be so-called antigen testing, he said, which can provide results within minutes, and if used frequently with the same population, could unearth positive cases. Jha has said while antigen tests have lower sensitivity levels than the more traditional polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, they can typically produce faster results.

The Office of the Attending Physician, the Capitol's small, on-campus doctor's office, issued new guidance on Friday for the Capitol complex, saying it currently provides PCR tests of "high accuracy and low rates of false negativity." The results are available the same day but only offered to members and staff workers who have symptoms or have concerns they were exposed to someone who has tested positive.

The office said it's also conducting contact tracing for all positive results, noting that its positivity rate has been less than 1%. It has also advised mask-wearing and social distancing. This summer, the House instituted a new mask mandate that will allow the forcible removal of members by U.S. Capitol Police if they don't comply.

In all, Congress has seen more than 120 cases among its members and workers, including more than 100 aides, Capitol Police and other workers. And this summer, Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida said Gary Tibbetts, a longtime staffer, had died after contracting COVID-19.


Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, has advocated throughout the pandemic that Capitol Hill should offer widespread coronavirus testing for members and staff alike. Last month, he reiterated those concerns ahead of the House's most recent return to chamber business.

"This is not the way private businesses and other governments are operating across the country and the American people deserve better from their representatives," wrote Davis, who tested positive in August and fully recovered.

On Friday, Davis told reporters that it was "travesty" that the Capitol still hasn't installed a testing system. He has promoted a plan to allow Congress to partner with the military or a private enterprise to expand screening.

"We just saw today, the best testing regime in the world still doesn't stop people from getting the virus, including the president and first lady," Davis said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.