Health chairman warns Senate could become 'virus-spreading machine' without testing

Health chairman warns Senate could become 'virus-spreading machine' without testing
© Greg Nash

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline Trump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal MORE (R-Tenn.) is urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal Pelosi, Schumer say White House declined T coronavirus deal COVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance MORE (R-Ky.) to accept testing kits offered by the White House so lawmakers can be tested for the coronavirus before flying back to their homes states.

Alexander told reporters after a Republican lunch Tuesday that he has advised McConnell that it would be wise for senators and House members to get tested for the virus after spending time in Washington, a COVID-19 "hot spot."

“We’re doubling the amount of testing up to 2 million a week. There ought to be enough tests to test 535 members of Congress who come to one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots before they go back home around the country and infect people in their districts,” Alexander said.

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“Members of Congress would represent sort of a virus-spreading machine, coming in here to a coronavirus hot spot and then going home,” he warned.

Alexander, who has taken the lead for GOP senators on assessing the deployment of tests, said McConnell “knows my thoughts.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to fly 535 people in from all over the country to a coronavirus hot spot and then send them home on Thursday and Friday. It would take an army of public health workers to track and trace all the people they might have exposed,” he said.

Another senator who attended Tuesday's Senate Republican lunch — the first in more than six weeks — said Alexander raised his concerns at the meeting.

Senators returned to the Capitol this week after spending all of April at home, and House members are expected to return soon.

But leaders have little idea if any of their colleagues are carrying the virus without showing symptoms. Only senators who display signs of sickness will get tested, and it will takes two days to get results.

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McConnell and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic convention lineup to include Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton, Warren: reports Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet New postmaster general overhauls USPS leadership amid probe into mail delays MORE (D-Calif.) on Saturday turned down a White House offer of three Abbott point-of-care testing machines to allow for rapid testing of lawmakers.

McConnell and Pelosi declined, saying the tests should go to “front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly.”

Alexander predicts congressional leaders will soon change their minds and accept the Trump administration’s offer.

“I think there will be a very rapid change in attitudes about accepting the president’s offer to test members of Congress for COVID-19, especially as the House comes back,” he said.

McConnell and Pelosi declined the offer in part because they didn’t want it to appear that senators and House members were receiving preferential treatment.

Trump didn’t appear pleased with the move, tweeting, “No reason to turn it down, except politics. We have plenty of testing. Maybe you need a new Doctor over there. Crazy Nancy will use it as an excuse not to show up to work!”

Alexander said concerns about bad optics are overblown.

“I think there’s concern it might look as if Congress were being preferred, but if you’re giving 2 million tests a week, from a public state point of view, the issue is not mostly about protecting members of Congress. It’s about protecting the people they might infect as they go home,” he said.