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 BowserBiden to GOP governors planning vaccine mandate lawsuits: 'Have at it' Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program Biden nominates DC regulator to federal energy commission 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.”

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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 MeadowsAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan House panel probing Jan. 6 attack seeks Trump records 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 YoungRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump |  Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Overnight Energy: Biden admin backs Trump approval of major Alaska drilling project | Senate Republicans pitch 8 billion for infrastructure | EPA to revise Trump rule limiting state authority to block pipelines 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.   

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On Monday, Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Mark PocanMark William PocanBiden seeks to build Democratic support among unions Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — A warning shot on Biden's .5T plan Overnight Defense & National Security — America's longest war ends 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 WalbergEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — West Coast wildfires drive East Coast air quality alerts House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water GOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message MORE (R-Mich.) and Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — A warning shot on Biden's .5T plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden continues to grapple with Afghanistan chaos Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms 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 JeffriesFormer Bad Boy rapper turned politician meets with US lawmakers Watch live: House Democratic leaders hold press conference Congressional staff pay is still too low 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.”