Pennsylvania Democrats want to know why they weren’t told when a Republican lawmaker tested positive for coronavirus

(Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News)

(Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News)

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania are voicing growing outrage after the belated revelation that one of their Republican colleagues had tested positive for the coronavirus, with allegations of a cover-up prompting calls for the House GOP leader to resign and one Democrat even calling for an official investigation.

Lawmakers learned Wednesday that state Rep. Andrew Lewis (R., Dauphin) had tested positive a full week earlier, on May 20. Lewis said he immediately began self-isolating after receiving the test result, and that he informed House officials, who worked to identify anyone he may have exposed.

But while some Republican lawmakers have confirmed being notified of their potential exposure and self-isolating as a result, Democrats say they only learned of it from a reporter — despite their own daily proximity to Lewis.

Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) sent a letter late Wednesday to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro seeking an investigation into what he called a failure to notify lawmakers and staff of the positive test as required under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We absolutely need to know more about what circumstances [led] to this ill-advised decision by House Republican leadership,” Boyle wrote. “Why has it taken so long for House Republican leadership and Representative Lewis to notify exposed members and staff?”

The call for a formal investigation raised the stakes on an already heated partisan split over how to responsibly legislate during the pandemic.

The legislature passed temporary rules in March allowing its members to vote remotely. In the House, the change allows lawmakers to submit votes to their respective party leaders. But those leaders and committee chairs still need to come to the Capitol to formally consider any legislation.

Many Republicans have opted to travel to the Capitol to vote in person, and a number of them have eschewed wearing face masks, following President Donald Trump in bucking guidance from public health officials. That includes state Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), one of at least two House members who were notified they had to self-quarantine after Lewis tested positive for the virus.

Lewis has said he kept his diagnosis private “out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed.”

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, has said officials followed state and federal guidelines requiring employers to identify employees who were in close contact (within about 6 feet) 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.

Shapiro’s office hasn’t yet commented on the call for an investigation.

Several Democratic members have called on House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to resign over the incident, including Rep. Brian Sims, who sits on a House committee with Lewis.

Sims posted an impassioned 11-minute video on Facebook late Wednesday ripping Republicans. It had more than one million views as of Thursday morning.

“I just spent the better part of the last eleven weeks sitting across the room from people who would eventually test positive and decided not to tell us,” Sims said in the video. “We have had to listen to members telling us this was fake, this wasn’t real, all the while knowing they were testing positive and withholding that from us.”

Sims and other Democrats held an emergency call with state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine late Wednesday to discuss whether they should be tested and how to protect their families, Sims said.

“I’m in a building right now surrounded by members that can’t go see their kids … because one of my colleagues tested positive but he was protecting his family but not protecting mine and Republican leadership protected him,” Sims said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Spotlight PA100% ESSENTIALSpotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.