COVID-19 in the Capitol: One lawmaker positive for COVID, two more in quarantine

By: - May 27, 2020 5:01 pm

Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, speaks on the House floor May 14 — his last day in the Capitol before he was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Courtesy of House Republicans)

*Updated at 7:53 a.m., on Thursday, 5/28/20, with additional information.

At least three Pennsylvania lawmakers say they’ve been in self-quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.

In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, confirmed he has tested positive for the disease. He is the first lawmaker to be tested positive for the coronavirus.

Another two GOP lawmakers, Rep. Russ Diamond, of Lebanon County, and Rep. Frank Ryan, of Lebanon County, also are in quarantine. Diamond told the Capital-Star he was also in self-quarantine due to potential exposure to a positive case at the Capitol.

The revelations come as the House prepared to pass important components of a temporary state budget during the pandemic. The news infuriated House Democrats, who discovered the news hours before Lewis’ statement.

Lewis said he had mild flu symptoms, was tested on May 18, and received a positive result on May 20. He was last in the Capitol on May 14.

He informed House Republican human resources, and began self-quarantine. He has since completed isolation. 

“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 that “out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed, I chose to keep my positive case private.”

Diamond told the Capital-Star that the House Republican human resources office informed him in an email that he had been in touch with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 on May 21. 

He said he is currently on his last day in quarantine, and did not get tested because he “did not have symptoms.”

“I had tons of meetings and in person things,” Diamond said. “I had a guy coming in to help with my house. I cancelled all that stuff.”

The contact came on May 14, Lewis’ last day in the Capitol.

Diamond received the notification after 5 pm on May 21. That morning, Diamond testified before a House committee on his resolution to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s health emergency. 

According to video of the meeting, Diamond did not wear a mask.

Fellow Lebanon County representative Ryan posted he was in quarantine on his official state Facebook last night.

He said he was contacted by “our human resources department” about possible contact, and is currently experiencing no symptoms.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I will continue in self-imposed quarantine and will be working from home. Thank you for your concern and well-wishes,” Ryan said.

Like Diamond, Ryan was without a mask at at least one committee hearing held last week, according to footage reviewed by the Capital-Star.

Ryan, Diamond, and Lewis all sit close to each other on the House floor, according to lawmakers. A fourth lawmaker who sits near them, Rep. David Rowe, R-Union, is also not in attendance this week.

In a text message, Rowe said he is at home recovering from surgery, not in self-quarantine.

In an email, House Republican spokesperson Mike Straub said that the chamber followed CDC guidelines, and only notified individuals who were within six feet of Lewis up to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms.

Given the timing of Lewis’ test, and that Lewis’ last day in the Capitol was on May 14, Straub said that it “did not require outside staff or assistance beyond our existing staff” to track and inform Lewis’ contacts.

“Absolutely anyone, from anywhere in the Capitol, who may have been exposed within those guidelines, was notified,” Straub said.

That did not include any Democrats, who first learned of the news Wednesday through media reports, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said in a statement.

“While we are pleased to learn that this House member seems to have recovered, it is simply unacceptable that some House Republicans knew about this for more than a week and sat on that knowledge,” he said.

Dermody also pointed to lawmakers who haven’t worn masks in the Capitol, which he said “shows a fundamental lack of respect for fellow lawmakers, our staff and our families back home.”

The revelation was also news to some Republicans. Two rank-and-file lawmakers told the Capital-Star they were not aware of Lewis’ diagnosis until Wednesday.

House Democrats ended up meeting in private to discuss their potential risk with Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, according to three House Democratic sources. With nearly two weeks down and no new cases, Levine advised lawmakers that there was little risk, according to one source.

But that was cold comfort for lawmakers, such as Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, who sent the entire chamber a blunt email.

Lewis release dropped at around 3:45 p.m., but rumors had swirled all afternoon. About a half hour before that release, Mullery sent a short message, titled “Self-Quarantined Members” to all his colleagues.

“Man or woman up!” it read.

“Let us know who you are so we know what precautionary measures we need to take,” Mullery wrote, according to screenshots viewed by the Capital-Star.

“P.S.,” he added, “thanks for the heads up prior to Session beginning this week.”

Following talking with Levine, Democrats returned to the floor at 6:30 to vote on one bill, that relaxes regulations for conventional oil and gas drillers. The House then adjourned until tomorrow.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.