The decision by congressional leaders to not deploy rapid testing for the coronavirus on Capitol Hill comes at a time of rising concern about the rate of infection in the region and the workplace.
For example, Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, has broken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying he disagreed with the decision to reject rapid COVID-19 tests offered by the White House.
“I do disagree about the testing,” McCarthy told Politico.
McCarthy’s rare deviation from McConnell highlights the grave safety concerns he has about the disease engulfing — and possibly paralyzing — the Capitol. Over the weekend, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell issued a joint statement saying they declined the Trump administration’s offer and that Congress wants to continue directing resources to front-line facilities.
The Senate convened Monday. Last week, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer — after initially scheduling the chamber to return to Washington May 4 — canceled those plans, citing the Capitol physician’s concerns about it.
McCarthy, who has been actively calling for committees to return to the House for imperative business, voiced concerns about the health risks of not having rapid testing at the Capitol complex.
“As we open up, we cannot assume that there will not be a flare up somewhere. I want to be prepared for that,” he said. “You want to have tracing and others.”
The quick response tests, McCarthy said, would allow the government to keep functioning amid a potential outbreak on Capitol Hill.
“You want to make sure the government doesn’t collapse or not be able to meet. What does that say to the country? What does that say to the rest of the world?,” McCarthy said. “You want to make sure it’s functioning. So I do not think it would be wrong to have one of the Abbott tests where you could have a quick response.”
A McConnell spokesperson said he had no comment beyond the statement from the weekend.
Pelosi defended the decision to decline the rapid tests during a CNN interview Monday evening, citing conversations she had with the Capitol physician and the organization that would have provided the tests the administration was offering.
“The Capitol physician, has said we don’t need to have them in terms of the exposure that we have,” the California Democrat said. “The testing organization said to us, ‘You’re not next. We can bump you in line and push other people out of the way, but you’re not next in terms of essential workers for this.’ So if any individual member privately — I’m not going into their lives — has a need for a test then that’s up to the doctor to determine.”
Pelosi acknowledged that there are essential workers on the Hill besides lawmakers — “thousands of people who make the Congress function” like custodians, food service workers and Capitol Police — but said front-line workers off the Hill should be the priority.
“Outside, our first responders and the rest, they should be getting this before we do,” she said. “And I don’t there’s one member of Congress who says, ‘I want to have a test before my constituent who really needs one gets one.’”
In a Medium post, McCarthy detailed a way in which Congress can phase back into work with a focus on the National Defense Authorization Act, Water Resources Development Act and fiscal 2021 spending. He called for reduced occupancy levels to maximize social distancing and proposed barriers for when physical distance is difficult to maintain. One example includes plexiglass dividers at security checkpoints or committee hearing rooms.
McCarthy also proposed a staggered schedule and teeing up bills for the end of the week or work period. That way, the bills can be marked up in person in committee and then the entire House could come back to vote on them when they reach the floor.
The way in which the legislative branch is conducting its business contrasts significantly from that of the District of Columbia government regarding the coronavirus. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order requiring face masks for hotel workers, guests, those using taxis and people in grocery stores. Congress is not beholden to orders issued by the government of the District of Columbia and there are no face mask requirements for members of Congress.
Attending Physician Brian Monahan, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, has encouraged the use of face coverings, but noted it is “voluntary unless required by specific Agency policy.” Currently, the only agency in the Capitol requiring face masks be worn is the Architect of the Capitol.
Monahan’s guidance from May 1 calls for employees to check their temperature each morning before reporting to work. Testing in the workplace is discouraged. There is also a health screening questionnaire that employees are to report to their employer before going to the office. It consists of 11 questions, including if one has a sore throat or frequent cough. If the employee answer yes to any of the questions, they are not to come to work and consult their personal doctor.
In late April, Bowser expanded criteria for priority coronavirus testing to essential government employees, among others.