Turzai says he didn’t know about positive COVID test, calls for future transparency

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny ("Friends of Mike Turzai" / WikiMedia Commons)

*This story was updated at 10:40 am on 5/29/20 with additional information

The most powerful lawmaker in the House said Thursday that he’d back changing the chamber’s rules to force lawmakers to tell their colleagues if they test positive for COVID-19.

Addressing the whole chamber, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said that if he were diagnosed with the disease, he “would immediately self-disclose and would immediately quarantine.”

“I do think that all members should follow the same protocol,” Turzai said. He added he would support a rules change requiring all lawmakers disclose if they test positive during the pandemic.

The announcement follows the revelation Wednesday that Republican Rep. Andrew Lewis of Dauphin County, had been diagnosed on May 20 with the coronavirus. That news sparked growing Democratic outrage and an increasing media spotlight on Harrisburg.

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

Turzai, who has been Speaker since 2015, has already announced he will retire at the end of this year. A stalwart conservative, he has become a frequent Democratic boogeyman.

The Democratic outrage over being kept in the dark has also included calls for Turzai to resign. Those critics “continue to refer to leadership,” Turzai said, but added he “was not informed” of the positive COVID-19 case.

Six GOP lawmakers and staffers also told the Capital-Star that they did not know about the diagnosis until Wednesday.

Turzai’s support for test result transparency also signals a split over how the incident was handled between the departing speaker and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Cutler’s office, which leads the House Republican Caucus — including its human resources department, has adamantly defended its move to withhold the information about Lewis’ positive text for the past week.

“Private health information is just that — private,” Cutler said to boos from the House floor Thursday.

While allowing for the possibility of improvement, Cutler added that there are also “individual rights, that can only be waived by the individual.” 

Cutler’s office cited federal medical privacy laws for not revealing Lewis’ result. But Michael Homans, a Philadelphia labor attorney, told the Capital-Star he did not agree with the interpretation.

Lewis was tested last week, on May 18, and was found positive on May 20. The case was rumored most of Wednesday, and ground legislative action to a halt in the middle of a push to pass a stopgap state budget. 

Lewis confirmed his diagnosis in a statement released Wednesday night and said he kept the result private “out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed.” 

Disclosure or negligence

For Democrats, the revelation touched off an explosion of simmering outrage over a steady stream of GOP reopening bills and other actions they said proved Republicans weren’t taking the pandemic seriously. 

Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, has become a spokesperson for his caucus’ anger. A profanity-laced social media tirade he posted Wednesday night went viral, and caused national news outlets to pick up the story. At press time, Sims’ video had 4.7 million views and was shared 132,000 times.

He continued to pour out his frustrations on the House floor Thursday.

Sims pointed to the virus’ long incubation period — up to 14 days, but typically between four to five days, according to the CDC — to question Republican leadership’s choice.

“To pick the two or three people you think might have been most exposed to them, and to secretly tell them when the rest of us didn’t have the benefit of protecting our families, protecting our friends, protecting our own health, is criminal,” Sims said.

His Democratic colleague, Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Philadelphia, sent a letter to Attorney General Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat, asking for an investigation of Republican leadership, to discover who knew what, and when they knew it.

But even as Sims cited CDC data, the House Republican COVID-19 protocol that the caucus utilized also followed federal health guidelines.

According to a copy seen by the Capital-Star, House Republican policy calls for notifying and quarantining those who were in touch with individuals up to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms — mirroring CDC workplace standards.

The policy also advises against quarantining “contacts of contacts” — or an individual who was in touch with a confirmed case of COVID-19, but is displaying no symptoms. 

Such an individual would include anyone in touch with Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, who said he was asked to quarantine by House Republican human resources because he had been in touch with someone who tested positive. 

Before he self-isolated, Diamond appeared without a mask at a May 21 committee hearing for his resolution to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration.

Pennsylvania’s top public health official, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, also offered her opinion to House Democrats Wednesday evening.

Levine, a frequent target of criticism for Republicans and pandemic response opponents, told Democrats that they were unlikely to have been put at risk given the time between Lewis’ exposure and today, according to two sources.

Bill Patton, spokesperson for House Democrats, confirmed the message, but added that Levine also understood why members were raising questions.

The internal Republican policy also advises that infected employees’ names will remain confidential, a point House Republican spokesperson Mike Straub reiterated in an email.

“The law is very clear for employers,” he said. While an employer can notify individuals who may have come into contact with the person, the employer cannot reveal the employee’s identity, or information that would lead to the person being easily identifiable, he said.

There is nuance to handling a positive case in the workplace, said Homans, the labor attorney.

Reveal too much about a positive case, and an employer might violate federal medical privacy laws or spread unreasonable panic.

Reveal too little, and bosses might create an unsafe work environment — and legal liability.

But, “unless people can put two and two together and say ‘It must be Sally,’” it would not violate federal law to tell unaffected employees about a coronavirus case in their workplace, Homans told the Capital-Star.

Looking at the House’s situation, he added: “I think a lot of employers would have been a lot more forthright.”

A tightrope

Lewis’ diagnosis sparked public Democrat outrage. But it also caused some more tempered comments from Republican lawmakers.

Sims “wears his emotions right on his sleeve,” Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland, told local radio station 1070 WKOK-FM on Thursday morning. “He doesn’t hide anything.”

If he did “rush to judgment,” Schlegel Culver said she wanted “to take a moment, pause, find out what’s going on and … act appropriately.” 

“I don’t know what leadership did know or didn’t know, that remains to be seen, as we go through this week,” she added. “The individuals themselves, it’s up to them, we do have the ability to work remotely and I think today’s going to be an interesting day for us; to figure out what happened, how it happened.”

In an email, Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, whose suburban Philadelphia district has borne the brunt of the virus, told the Capital-Star he was in the Capitol this week for the first time in a month.

He did not directly critique leadership, saying that the House “should maintain personal privacy while providing the members and staff with as much information as possible so each of us can do what we feel is necessary to protect ourselves and our families.”

Personally, Stephens added, he would immediately disclose a positive test, “so anyone who had contact with me would know and be able to do whatever they felt was necessary to protect themselves and their families.”

*Democratic spokesperson Patton said Thursday the caucus would introduce a rule change that would mandate all lawmakers wear masks in the Capitol, and mandate that all lawmakers reveal a positive COVID-19 test. Cutler asked to handle the issue at a closed door meeting after session.

Cutler spokesperson Straub told the Capital-Star Friday that at the meeting both parties agreed to share COVID-19 policies and develop a new plan for all House employees, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

The uproar also sparked some discussions in the Senate, according to chamber President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

He told reporters Thursday evening that the Senate asked for a “good scrubbing” following Lewis’ diagnosis, and that the chamber was rethinking its own policy now.

How to handle a diagnosis, Scarnati said, requires walking a tightrope between health and privacy.

“Sometimes we have to rely on some common sense, he said. “And you can’t legislate that and put that in a rule.”