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Capitol physician expands testing, but remains selective

Congress still has no formal testing program

Lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill have expanded access to on-site COVID-19 testing through the Office of the Attending Physician, according to new guidance released Friday. The details on availability of the testing, though, do not appear to be widely known and underscore that there is no uniform testing regime for the legislative branch.

“The testing is available in medically indicated cases of Members who have symptoms suggestive of coronavirus or who are concerned they may have been exposed to a known positive Covid 19 patient,” the guidance reads. “The testing is available throughout the day. Other staff members who have been in contact with a known positive case here at the Capitol are also offered testing.”

This is the first time that staffers have had access to tests if they were potentially exposed to the virus over the course of their work duties.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Minnesota GOP Reps. Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn all received tests from the OAP in recent days. Lee announced Friday that he had tested positive. Emmer and Hagedorn said Friday their tests came back negative.

Friday’s announcement from Congress’ internal medical office comes after the news overnight that President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and senior Trump counselor Hope Hicks all tested positive for COVID-19 and the ensuing revelation that multiple lawmakers may have been exposed to the coronavirus when they flew with the president and his senior staff on Air Force One to recent events.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was tested Friday morning by the OAP and received a negative result. The test was conducted “[o]ut of an abundance of caution,” her spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.

House Judiciary ranking member Jim Jordan also received a negative test result Friday from the OAP. A spokesman said the Ohio Republican’s physician had advised him that “since he was not in close contact with any COVID-19 positive people during a risk time period, he does not have to quarantine.”

Beginning in March, symptomatic members were able to be tested by the OAP, and over the summer, testing expanded to all members of Congress, according to a House Republican aide.

But multiple members told CQ Roll Call between March and September that no testing was available or that they were not aware the OAP had any tests.

‘High accuracy’

The OAP is using a diagnostic RT-PCR test with “high accuracy and low rates of false negativity,” according to the new guidance.

Lawmakers and staff can get their test results on the same day the swab sample is taken. That promise means a faster turnaround than most of the public testing sites in Washington, despite the swabs being sent to the same labs run by LabCorp, according to a House aide.

But it’s also a slower and less robust testing scheme than the one in place at the White House, where personnel, media and other visitors undergo more routine rapid testing for those coming into contact with the president or high-ranking officials. There are also random tests of other employees in the White House complex.

For months, staffers, reporters and others on Capitol Hill who have frequent interaction with lawmakers, including those in leadership and the presidential line of succession, have been relying on either outside testing or an honor system of not coming to work if they’ve had a potential exposure. The new OAP testing guidelines will allow for exposed staffers to be tested.

The OAP is working with local health authorities to conduct contact tracing for all positive results. This is a significant shift from a “decision matrix” the OAP utilized and publicized earlier in the pandemic, which emphasized consulting outside medical providers.

Safety considerations

But some lawmakers don’t think the piecemeal testing approach is enough.

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, has been pushing for widespread testing in the chamber for months.

He had COVID-19 in August and has recovered, but continues to be concerned about the risk to lawmakers, staff and support workers on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s a travesty that we don’t have a testing modality system in place,” he said Friday morning.

Davis emphasized that if his colleagues are concerned about the optics of members of Congress getting privileged access to testing, then lawmakers don’t necessarily need to be included when considering how to make Capitol Hill safer.

“It’s clearly not just about members of Congress. And if that’s the perception that it is, then don’t let us use it,” he suggested.

He said that Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol employees and others who are a frequent presence on the Capitol campus, including media, should be part of a widespread testing strategy.

“They need opportunities because we just saw today, the best testing regime in the world doesn’t stop people from getting the virus,” said Davis, referencing the positive tests of the first couple.

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Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt has been pushing for widespread testing at the Capitol for months, but hasn’t seen a system like ones the White House or some universities have in place in which each member of the community is tested regularly.

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called for a more thorough testing and contact tracing regimen than was announced later in the day by the OAP.

“This episode demonstrates that the Senate needs a testing and contact tracing program for Senators, staff, and all who work in the Capitol complex,” the New York Democrat said said in a statement. “We simply cannot allow the administration’s cavalier attitude to adversely affect this branch of government.”

On Friday afternoon, Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, came out in favor of a stricter testing protocol for Congress.

“There are a lot of low-income cafeteria workers, maintenance workers who are exposed,” Murphy told MSNBC, advocating widespread testing of the Capitol community.

Murphy said that with Lee’s positive test and his close interactions with so many senators, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for the Senate not to meet for the next two weeks. He said all potentially exposed lawmakers should comply with self-isolation recommendations, which would require the chamber to halt business.

Lee said in a statement that he sought medical advice Thursday after experiencing symptoms consistent with “longtime allergies.”

“Unlike the test I took just a few days ago while visiting the White House, yesterday’s test came back positive,” the Utah Republican said.

Questions remain

What is not made clear in the update from the OAP is the office’s capacity for testing, notably whether there would be enough tests if concerns about widespread exposure rise.

It is unclear if credentialed members of the media are included in the testing parameters. They are permitted to get flu shots from the OAP and seek minor medical care while on the job at the Capitol.

Staffers on Capitol Hill are familiar with the OAP’s annual flu vaccination regime. While there are usually enough flu shots to meet demand at the Capitol, there are often windows where none are available.

“Availability is likely to be staggered throughout the season,” the OAP website states about the flu shot.

Like previous years, the flu shot supply in Congress is not limitless and the OAP receives batch shipments from the manufacturer.

“This may lead to temporary pauses in vaccine distribution, but we anticipate an ultimately sufficient amount to treat the Congressional community,” the OAP website says.

The Office of the Attending Physician has not yet returned requests for comment.

Niels Lesniewski and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.

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