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Air Force to assist in expanded Capitol Hill COVID-19 testing

Proposal responds to concerns about travel to D.C. from affected areas

Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells colleagues that a new coronavirus testing program awaits their return to Washington.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells colleagues that a new coronavirus testing program awaits their return to Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday an expansion of COVID-19 testing on Capitol Hill in response to new travel restrictions implemented by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Pelosi told leaders within the House Democratic Caucus earlier in the day that the Air Force would provide up to 2,000 RT-PCR tests for the entire Congress at no cost for the next six weeks, according to a senior Democratic aide. The turnaround time on the tests is six to 12 hours, and the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, recommended the plan.

Under the proposal, if someone traveling to Capitol Hill receives a positive test, the Office of the Attending Physician would perform an additional test to confirm the result.

A longer-term solution is under consideration for beyond the six weeks covered by the Air Force tests, the senior Democratic aide said.

The new testing regime does not change the mandate to wear masks in the House, maintain social distance and telework where possible.

It is not yet clear if the testing will be mandatory for lawmakers traveling from any of the 42 “high risk” states on D.C.’s travel restrictions list or to what extent others on Capitol Hill, including staff, workers and the media, will have access to tests. City requirements do not apply to Congress, but the new program was designed to respond to concerns.

People who make non-essential trips to D.C. from 42 states are required to self-quarantine for 14 days because of coronavirus levels in those locations. 

In May, as the pandemic was taking hold across the country, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Pelosi agreed to reject an offer from the Trump administration to provide Congress with rapid results testing for COVID-19, saying those tests should go where there was greater need.

“Congress is grateful for the Administration’s generous offer to deploy rapid COVID-19 testing capabilities to Capitol Hill, but we respectfully decline the offer at this time,” the two leaders said in a joint statement on May 2.

It is not clear if the process Pelosi announced will apply to the Senate side of the Capitol and its personnel. But Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt has been a proponent of widespread testing among lawmakers, staff and the Capitol Hill workforce since the early days of the pandemic.

Just days after Pelosi and McConnell turned down the White House testing offer, Blunt told The Washington Post that he had spoken with the Office of the Attending Physician about rapid tests from the Air Force that could be used on Capitol Hill.

“There’s also another test that the Air Force, I believe, has purchased, that I’ve given information to the Capitol physician about that would allow tests that would be quick and well beyond just the member level,” the Missouri Republican said.

The OAP had restricted testing to lawmakers exhibiting symptoms until October, when calls for more testing got louder after a slew of positive COVID-19 tests that included President Donald Trump, and GOP Sens. Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson.

Tillis and Lee contracted the virus after attending an event at the White House. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called for more testing, saying, “We simply cannot allow the administration’s cavalier attitude to adversely affect this branch of government.”

The New York Democrat’s call echoed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been calling for a more robust testing regimen for months. Members are able to get tests from the OAP, but since the virus emerged in the U.S. in February, there has been no testing regimen for members of the House and Senate.

The OAP is using the diagnostic RT-PCR test, which it says has “high accuracy and low rates of false negativity,” but it’s not a robust regimen like the one at the White House. There, personnel, media and other visitors coming into contact with the president or high-ranking officials undergo more routine rapid testing.

In October, the OAP said it would work with local health authorities to conduct contact tracing for all positive results.

It was a significant shift from a “decision matrix” the office utilized and publicized earlier in the pandemic, which had emphasized consulting outside medical providers.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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