A growing number of lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus since Trump supporters staged an insurrection on January 6 at the US Capitol. Currently, at least five lawmakers have said they are infected:
- Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-KS)
- Rep. Charles Fleischmann (R-TN)
- Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ)
- Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)
- Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL)
All are self-isolating following their results. LaTurner said he is asymptomatic, while Fleischmann on Sunday said, “I currently feel okay.” Watson Coleman’s office said she is “experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms.” Jayapal did not share whether she is experiencing symptoms in her announcement of her test results. And as of Tuesday, Schneider said, “I have not yet experienced symptoms.”
These positive tests are a reminder of the importance of taking preventative action to guard against the coronavirus, and mask-wearing alone in crowded, indoor spaces with limited airflow isn’t enough to prevent transmission — particularly if others who may be contagious refuse to wear masks. Research has suggested that mask-wearing by all parties in a given encounter could reduce the risk of spread by nearly 80 percent.
LaTurner tested positive the evening of the storming of the Capitol, suggesting he was infected prior to the insurrection; Fleischmann announced his results Sunday. Watson Coleman’s results came Monday, while Jayapal and Schneider received theirs Tuesday. Fleischmann and all three Democrats discovered they’d been infected days after being sequestered with other lawmakers and Hill staffers in a crowded safe room amid the attack.
As Punchbowl News reported, many Republican lawmakers in the safe room — including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs, Scott Perry, Michael Cloud, and Markwayne Mullin — refused to wear masks despite the crowded conditions, even when Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester offered them.
As seen in a video shared by Punchbowl, Blunt Rochester’s efforts were met with derision by some of her GOP colleagues; refusing her overtures, Mullin can be heard remarking, “I’m not trying to get political here,” before adding, “I’ll come over there and hug you.”
After the Capitol was secured, Blunt Rochester tweeted, “While I was disappointed in my colleagues who refused to wear a mask, I was encouraged by those who did. My goal, in the midst of what I feared was a super spreader event, was to make the room at least a little safer.”
Jayapal expressed a similar fear, telling New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister shortly after the insurrection, “I’m quarantining now because I am convinced that where we ended up, in the secured room — where there were over 100 people and many were Republicans not wearing masks — was a superspreader event.”
When announcing her test results Tuesday, Jayapal said she believed her fears had come to pass: “Only hours after Trump incited a deadly assault on our Capitol, many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic—creating a superspreader event ON TOP of a domestic terrorist attack.”
Monday, Watson Coleman’s office said the lawmaker similarly “believes she was exposed during protective isolation in the U.S. Capitol building as a result of insurrectionist riots.”
Including the latest infections, more than 50 federal lawmakers have now tested positive for Covid-19.
Did the insurrection lead to a superspreader event?
The new cases follow a warning from Brian Monahan, the attending physician to Congress, who on Sunday advised lawmakers to get tested, saying they “may have been exposed to another occupant with coronavirus infection” while “in protective isolation.”
Whether that “occupant” was LaTurner or another Capitol Hill employee is unclear, but the new cases do raise concerns that, as Jayapal has claimed, the congressional evacuation may have led to a superspreader event.
As Vox’s Brian Resnick reported:
Superspreading doesn’t have a specific scientific definition. But, roughly, it’s defined as when one case of a disease causes a disproportionate number of others.
Superspreaders are made at the intersection of timing (a person is most contagious when their viral load peaks, usually right as they are starting to feel symptoms, or perhaps a bit before), an individual’s biology (some people may be predisposed to spread more than others), the activity (the longer the time spent with a superspreader, the greater the chances of being exposed to the virus), and the environment (indoor environments are much more conducive to allowing viral-laden aerosols to linger in a space longer, infecting more people).
From the reporting available about the evacuation, as well as the information Monahan provided, it seems as though lawmakers were in danger of being exposed.
First, it is certainly possible that someone unaware of their status as a coronavirus-infected person (because, for instance, they did not yet have symptoms) could have been in the safe room. If they were, they likely would have had sufficient viral load to infect others.
Monahan has confirmed there was at least one infected person present, making the conditions and environment also of concern. Lawmakers and Hill staff were in a crowded indoor room where social distancing was difficult. Those present were there for an extended period of time; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that any close contact with an infected person exceeding 15 minutes creates a heightened risk of infection.
Though it is difficult to assess the individual biologies of all those sequestered, what seems to have increased the risk is the fact that many present had recently traveled to DC from their home states — states that are nearly uniformly overwhelmed by new confirmed cases in what is the worst phase of the pandemic so far.
The easiest — though certainly not foolproof — way to mitigate these risks is to wear a mask. As the CDC notes, current evidence suggests wearing a mask “offers some protection to you,” the wearer. But it also notes that masks are effective in limiting the spread of Covid-19 because they “help prevent your respiratory droplets from reaching others.” That is, masks limit an infected person from spreading the coronavirus more than they protect the healthy from getting infected.
According to various reports, masks were not worn by all legislators inside the safe room — and any maskless infected person may have infected others, whether or not those individuals were wearing masks themselves.
In the worst-case scenario, many more of those who work on Capitol Hill could test positive for Covid-19. Following a White House reception for now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, deemed “a superspreader event” — more than 20 people were ultimately infected.
For some present in the safe room, the risk of infection may be limited by the fact that many lawmakers — as well as their staffers — have received at least one vaccine dose. “Getting just one dose still reduces a person’s chances of getting Covid-19 by 80 to 90 percent, at least initially,” Vox’s Kelsey Piper previously reported.
But Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, recently told Vox’s Sigal Samuel that vaccine recipients “need to wait at minimum two weeks after the first shot to see any kind of protection, but really you need to wait at least a week after the second shot.”
Many lawmakers are still within that two-week, first-shot window; Jayapal received her first dose only two days before the insurrection. The same goes for Watson Coleman.
Overall, as Vox’s Umair Irfan explained, scientists are still working to understand exactly how much protection vaccination, especially partial vaccination, can provide. But what’s immediately clear is that others in the safe room who received their first dose around the same time as Watson Coleman and Jayapal — or who have not been inoculated at all — could still be at risk of infection.