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Congress And COVID-19: Members' Cases And Quarantines

Updated April 1, 2021 at 5:14 PM ET

For the first time during the pandemic, members of Congress hit a milestone on April 1 with no reported cases of coronavirus among their ranks for at least two months straight.

The pause comes as a large share of the 535 lawmakers were fully vaccinated by the start of 2021 after coronavirus exacted a large toll on the Capitol.

Over the past year, the pandemic upended daily work for months, sickening dozens of members and hundreds of workers. A sitting congressman, a member-elect and an aide died.

By February, more than 60 lawmakers and 360 Capitol Hill workers tested positive, or were presumed so, for the illness, according to NPR's tracker and congressional aides.

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That same month, Texas Republican Rep. Ron Wright became the first sitting member of Congress to die after a more than two-week battle with the illness. In December 2020, Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow died days before he was due to be sworn in. And last summer, a Florida House member's aide died from COVID-19.

The rash of infections among members had continued at a consistent pace since March 2020, with the longest stretch without any such cases lasting about three weeks during recess periods away from Washington, D.C.

But in March 2021, Capitol Hill saw a breakthrough, with the first monthlong stretch without any reported cases or quarantines among members. The last positive case was reported by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., on Jan. 29, despite having received his second dose of the vaccine days earlier.

Another member, New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney reported the last quarantine for a member of Congress on Feb. 1, which ended Feb. 8 without a report of a positive test.

The final outbreak of cases on Capitol Hill appeared to be triggered by the Jan. 6 insurrection, which forced members to cluster together in rooms for several hours. Some House Republicans were seen refusing to wear masks during the ordeal.

Later, the Capitol's attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, told Congress at least one of these holding rooms for House members included a lawmaker who was already positive.

More than a half-dozen members quarantined as a result and several tested positive, including Democratic Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey and Brad Schneider of Illinois.

In all, January prove to be member's worst month for the illness with at least 17 lawmakers testing positive. Before the insurrection, the House met to launch a new session before reinstating rules allowing proxy voting.

This, as congressional leaders and lawmakers received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which became available to members beginning in December. The doses were provided to meet long-standing requirements for continuity of government operations, Monahan told members in a Dec. 17 note.

Ahead of the vaccinations, both chambers of Congress recessed multiple times last year as the Capitol went largely without a widespread testing program.

The Democrat-controlled House installed emergency proxy voting and remote hearings in May, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended the covered period several times due to the pandemic. It remains in place until at least early 2021.

In November, Pelosi triggered a broader COVID-19 testing program for Congress following new requirement for travelers to the Washington, D.C., area.

Last month, Pelosi said with only about 75 percent of members vaccinated, including many Republicans who still refuse to do so, she's unclear when Congress will get back to normal.

"One of the most substantial steps that can be taken is that everybody should be vaccinated," Pelosi told reporters March 19, later adding, "We need 100% of the members vaccinated, because it just takes one to endanger others."

The pandemic has also delayed other rituals, such as President Biden's first address before a joint session of Congress.

"It will be soon, I hope," Pelosi told reporters this month.

Last year remains a reminder how quickly outbreaks could spiral out of control among lawmakers.

In December, at least nine House members, including six Republicans, tested positive for the illness. And November proved to be the second worst month of the pandemic, when at least 15 lawmakers said they were infected, including two of the oldest, Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

A previous outbreak in September was tied to a White House Rose Garden ceremony to announce Amy Coney Barrett as then-President Trump's Supreme Court justice nominee. Trump, first lady Melania Trump and dozens of others in attendance tested positive, including Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

It was one of several instances forcing leaders to change the Congressional schedule.

Starting in the first month of the pandemic in March, House and Senate leaders delayed bringing back members in light of public health guidelines recommending social distancing.

The Senate returned in May, but the much larger House remained mostly away under the advice of Dr. Monahan. That same month, the House approved its historic rule changes to allow remote voting and hearings.

The first spate of cases began March 8, 2020, when two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, were the first members of Congress to announce self-quarantines. Both attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., where another guest fell ill.

The following week, the first two members of Congress said they tested positive for the coronavirus illness. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah both said they developed symptoms after a March 14 floor vote on a coronavirus relief package.

By last summer, dozens of Capitol workers reported a positive test or were presumed so, and Gary Tibbetts, a longtime staffer for Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, died from COVID-19 on July 24.

Some lawmakers took antibody tests to see if they were previously ill. They include Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who both said they tested positive months after experiencing symptoms in the spring.

To stem the flow of new cases, both chambers early on issued new social distancing guidance. Also, the U.S. Capitol closed to public tours and remained open only to members, staff, press and official business visitors, and aside from the Jan. 6 breach by pro-Trump extremists, has remained so.

In late July 2020, Pelosi also issued a new mask mandate after Texas GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert, who often rejected mask protocols, tested positive. Gohmert had attended several hearings a day earlier and returned to the Capitol following a White House screening that caught his infection.

Gohmert's case triggered quarantines for five House members, including Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva. Days later, Grijalva tested positive, but fully recovered symptom free. Now, members can be forcibly removed by Capitol Police if they are not wearing masks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 16, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina as a Republican. He is a Democrat.
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