House launches new COVID-19 testing program

House launches new COVID-19 testing program
© Greg Nash

The Capitol’s attending physician launched a new COVID-19 testing program for House lawmakers and staffers on Monday as many of them return to Washington for the first time since the election. 

Testing will not be mandatory. But Brian Monahan said he was issuing new coronavirus protocols in the Capitol due to a rapid rise in cases throughout the country and D.C. Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserCapitol physician advises lawmakers against attending dinners, receptions during COVID-19 spike The Hill's 12:30 Report: How to celebrate Thanksgiving safely Governors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions MORE’s (D) week-old order requiring people to get tested before and after they travel to the nation’s capital. 

“The overall direction to travelers is to obtain a COVID 19 test prior to traveling to Washington, DC, and obtain a second COVID 19 test, 3 to 5 days after your arrival. My office will provide your post arrival test,” Monahan wrote to lawmakers and staff Sunday night. “As a critical infrastructure worker, you may conduct your official business immediately on arrival in the District of Columbia.”


Congressional spouses and children, who are not essential workers, are not eligible for the free testing in the Capitol and will need to be tested at regional testing sites, Monahan wrote. They also will need to quarantine during the period between their pre-travel COVID-19 test and their post-travel test in D.C.

The testing program comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases nationwide as Americans have begun to relax their social-distancing habits and are spending more time indoors as the fall weather turns cooler. There were more than 135,000 new cases reported on Sunday, down from a record 181,000 cases two days earlier.

Lawmakers and medical experts have been particularly concerned about a potential outbreak in the Capitol since many members travel — by air or rail — back and forth between their districts and Washington each week.  

There have already been several outbreaks in the White House, sickening the first family; chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsDespite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill EPA chief quarantining after exposure to someone who later tested positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Barr splits with Trump on election; pardon controversy MORE, a former House member; press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; and other top staffers and Cabinet members. 

In the House, at least 20 lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to NPR's congressional COVID-19 tracker. The latest to come down with the coronavirus is 87-year-old Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Incoming Congress looks more like America Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians MORE (R-Alaska), the oldest member of Congress and the longest serving in the House. Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who flipped a Democratic seat in the Nov. 3 election, also has tested positive and is quarantining back home.   


On Monday, Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Mark PocanMark William PocanCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Wis.) said he was quarantining at home after he spent two hours in the car with his 91-year-old mother, who later tested positive. Later in the day, two other Midwesterners, Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Mich.) and Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' MORE (D-Ill.), the head of the Democrats' campaign arm, said they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Monahan’s memo states that lawmakers this week will be exempt from the pre-travel test requirement since they had less than seven days’ advance notice of the D.C. mayor’s travel order and their travel to Washington.   

Monahan is using the RT-PCR coronavirus test, a nasal swab test which he described as “streamlined, rapid, and convenient.” Results are available within six to 12 hours. 

In addition to testing, House leaders are taking other precautions as well. Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.) informed lawmakers that the leadership elections planned for Wednesday and Thursday will for the first time take place virtually. That will allow elderly members or those with health issues who have been voting remotely during the pandemic to remain home in their districts while participating in choosing their leaders for the 117th Congress. 

During typical leadership elections, lawmakers all gather in a large committee room and listen to nominating and candidate speeches before they vote.

“After evaluating multiple options in consulting with the candidates, we have decided that this year's elections will be conducted virtually,” Jeffries wrote his colleagues. “Candidates will address the caucus via video call, and members will vote using a specialized voting application (app) on an official government iPhone.”