Pa. House Democrats say they were in the dark for a week about Republican’s positive coronavirus test

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

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A Republican state lawmaker from Central Pennsylvania confirmed Wednesday that he tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, leading at least one of his House colleagues to self-quarantine.

The admission immediately ignited outrage among Democrats in the chamber who said they were recklessly left in the dark for nearly a week about the lawmaker’s condition.

State Rep. Andrew Lewis (R., Dauphin) said in a statement that he received a positive COVID-19 result on May 20 and immediately began self-isolation. He said he informed House officials after he received the result, and they have worked to identify anyone with whom he may have come into contact. Lewis said he was last in the Capitol on May 14.

One of Lewis’ House colleagues, Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), confirmed he was contacted and asked to self-quarantine — although several Democrats said two other Republican lawmakers were also told to stay home for 14 days.

“I can confirm every member or staff member who met the criteria for exposure was immediately contacted and required to self-isolate for 14 days from their date of possible exposure,” Lewis said in a statement.

He added: “Out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed, I chose to keep my positive case private. Now that I have fully recovered and completed the quarantine as required by the Department of Health, I feel now is the appropriate time to share this information with the public and my constituents and I look forward to being a resource in sharing my experiences with COVID-19 and helping our community navigate this crisis together.”

The statement came after a day of intense handwringing among lawmakers and staff in the House, who early in the day had gotten word that colleagues were self-isolating. For a few hours on what was expected to be a busy voting day, session came to a grinding halt.

The state House and Senate approved remote voting after Pennsylvania confirmed its first coronavirus cases in early March. Unlike Democrats, many Republican lawmakers have chosen to continue traveling to the Capitol to attend session in person and have eschewed wearing masks.

Diamond, the Republican from Lebanon County, has been one of the legislature’s most vocal opponents of mask-wearing, boasting on social media that he goes shopping without one.

In an interview Wednesday, Diamond that he has been in self-quarantine since May 21, when House human resources officials informed him late in the afternoon that he had been in contact with a person who had tested positive for the virus.

Earlier that same day, he had appeared before a House committee, without a mask, to make the case for his resolution to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration.

Diamond, who sits behind Lewis on the House floor, said he was not told who had tested positive. He said he never developed symptoms and did not get tested.

“I am perfectly fine,” said Diamond, who plans to return to the Capitol on Thursday.

Upon hearing the news Wednesday, Democrats immediately began demanding answers from their Republican colleagues about why they had not been informed sooner that one of their colleagues had tested positive. Some demanded resignations.

Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) chairs a House committee on which both Diamond and Lewis sit. He said most Republican members have not been wearing masks in committee.

“Whoever knew this in the Republican leadership and did not inform the broader membership and staff, they need to resign immediately. This is outrageous and immoral,” said Boyle, who said he’s trying to get tested in Harrisburg this week before returning to Philadelphia.

Boyle’s committee has met more than most as it considers legislation pertaining to reopening the state’s economy. It has also been the scene of several battles over how quickly to ease pandemic restrictions, with Democrats pushing for caution and Republicans, many from less-affected counties, encouraging a swifter reopening.

“I am livid,” said state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), who sits on the committee with Lewis, adding: “They were derelict in their duty when they did not alert us to this immediately. … They put our health at risk, they put our families at risk, and Speaker [Mike] Turzai should resign, period.”

Kenyatta said he and his partner were both tested Wednesday after hearing the news.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, declined to name any other members who may have been directed to quarantine, citing medical privacy laws. He also declined to say how many people were notified by House officials to self-isolate.

Straub did say the House floor is professionally cleaned and sanitized every night, and that Lewis’ office has also been disinfected. He also said that state and federal guidelines require employers to identify employees who were in close contact with a person with a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19.

“Absolutely anyone, from anywhere in the Capitol, who may have been exposed within those guidelines was notified,” Straub said. “We followed data and science, implementing the guidelines from the CDC and Pa. Department of Health, in line with exactly what Gov. Wolf requires from any business that wishes to operate.”

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