“Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities,” Pelosi and McConnell wrote May 2 in a rare joint statement to “respectfully decline” the offer for testing.
That made sense at the time. For most of May and June, the Senate was in session, with just 100 members and limited staff, while the House worked mostly from afar through committee meetings by video. Since early May, the House, with 431 members currently, has held votes on only three days, and those roll calls were drawn out into slow processions to allow lawmakers to social distance.
That all changes Thursday when the House comes back into session for two days. The following week Pelosi will hold a regular session, with votes planned to stretch across four days, the first normally scheduled week since mid-March.
Even with rules allowing members to stay home and cast votes through other lawmakers who are on hand, leaders expect nearly 400 House members to be in the Capitol.
All told, both the House and Senate will be in session four of the next six weeks. And they will be traveling back and forth on planes and trains, at a time when the virus is spread throughout the country.
Those lawmakers who initially disagreed with Pelosi and McConnell now worry that they’re making possibly a bigger mistake now.
“From a public health point of view, this is not mostly about protecting members of Congress. It is about protecting the people members might infect,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a statement to The Washington Post. “That many members traveling to and from Washington D.C. each week creates a highly efficient virus spreading machine.”
Pelosi and McConnell have not changed their own positions on a required testing regimen, but it is a bit easier now to get tested as a member of Congress.
“Testing is available through the Office of the Attending Physician consistent with guidance from the CDC. We continue to examine additional testing as more testing is in fact becoming more readily available,” David Popp, McConnell’s spokesman, said in a statement.
According to a senior Democratic aide, the attending physician will now give tests to lawmakers who request them, symptomatic or not, and as testing capacity increases, they will be allowed to also get tests through the D.C. Department of Health.
These guidelines are constantly being evaluated, according to the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private medical discussions.
That’s a good start, but Alexander continues to lead the push to go further and make sure every lawmaker has tested negative before they fly home from Washington.
“Certainly any member of Congress who wants a test should be given a test. The country has the capacity now to test at least 10 million persons each month, so there are plenty of tests available,” Alexander said.
That is the biggest change in dynamics since early May, when health officials in the District of Columbia lacked many of the swabs and supplies needed to conduct testing.
D.C. sites now have the capacity to conduct about 5,500 daily tests, officials say, but so far in June they have topped more than 2,000 tests on just three days.
So, if members of Congress started getting tested regularly, they would not be skipping ahead of a line of everyday workers unable to get tested.
Some private sector companies have purchased their own tests to reopen their businesses, including some Ford plants in Michigan. Universities that are trying to reopen for the fall semester are setting up a testing system.
Even professional sports are now using testing systems.
The PGA Tour is now testing about 400 people on site at its golf tournaments, including every player and their caddies.
Public health officials believe that the best way to stay ahead of an outbreak of covid-19 is to conduct regular testing of people in the same workplace, to catch anyone who is positive early and then isolate and treat that person.
Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics published a paper May 12 about the needs for coronavirus testing for “critical contexts” to the nation during the pandemic, including heath-care settings, grocery stores, assembly-line plants, the military and the White House.
Congress was not included on that list of critical institutions, but many lawmakers argue that their work has never been more important. Congress has already approved nearly $3 trillion worth of rescue funding for the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic, and leaders have eyed the last two weeks of July as key negotiations for the next round of legislation to battle the disease.
So far just nine lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus or had such obvious symptoms their doctor deemed them to be positive, according to a tally maintained by NPR. Two Democratic senators, Tim Kaine (VA) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), took antibody tests and learned that their mild flu-like symptoms in the early spring were actually covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Aside from testing, Pelosi this past week asked committee chairs to require masks at all hearings to slow the spread of the disease — consistent with new guidelines from Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of Congress.
In early May, Alexander and a bipartisan group of lawmakers worried that they could contract the disease in the District, which was entering its coronavirus peak at the time, and then bring it back to their homes.
Since then, the District’s infection rate has plummeted and a few dozen new infections a day have emerged.
Instead, the virus is surging in places like Arizona, Texas and Florida, three states with more than 75 combined lawmakers in Congress.
For the next six weeks, almost all will be shuttling back and forth to Washington, with very few having taken a coronavirus test.