We need to curb the coronavirus outbreak in the Senate — now

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As President Trump undergoes treatment for COVID-19, attention is on the White House ceremony on Sept. 26 announcing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court as a potential superspreading event. We know several attendees are now infected. We need to trace everyone at this event to fully understand who else was infected, trace their contacts and test and quarantine people as appropriate to stop this devastating outbreak.   

While this attention on the White House is important, there is another branch of government that is getting much less attention: Congress, specifically the Senate. It appears it too is having a significant outbreak. This latest development poses a grave threat to our nation’s most senior legislative leadership and to our ability to peacefully navigate an upcoming election in the midst of great uncertainty.  

At this moment, we know that Sens. Mike Lee, (R-Utah) and Thom Tillis, (R-N.C.) have been infected with the coronavirus, possibly at the White House event. The diagnosis of Sen. Ron Johnson, (R-Wis.), however, suggests a separate chain of transmission. Johnson was not at the White House event. It is possible that Johnson represents a secondary case (that is, he was infected from someone who attended the ceremony) but not likely. A more plausible scenario is that Johnson was infected by someone not associated with the White House event. 

This raises the likelihood that other senators and staff members are also infected and might be unknowingly spreading the virus. One out of every two infections in this pandemic comes from someone who wasn’t sick when they passed on the virus.  

The consequences of failing to control an outbreak in the Senate are enormous, particularly considering that so many senators are at high risk for complications. Yet, as many times before in this pandemic, we are at risk of letting politics get in the way of public health. Everyone who has come in contact with a senator who tested positive needs to quarantine, get tested and inform the public about the test results. Further, we need more transparency about Senate tracing and testing efforts.

The science here is very clear: If we fail to contact trace, test and isolate, the virus will spread. More people will get sick and die. And testing alone won’t be enough. Here is what the Senate leadership needs to do now to protect senators, staff and families. 

First, pause all activity in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has announced a two-week recess, which is exactly right. Everyone must take it seriously. Senators and their staff should work remotely and refrain from mingling or interacting with each other in person. We need to stop all in-person contact until this outbreak is under control.

Second, immediately start an aggressive tracing and testing effort, prioritizing any senator or staff who attended the White House event, and everyone who has been in close contact with Sens. Johnson, Lee and Tillis. 

This contact tracing and testing effort needs to go beyond the first generation of contacts into the second by identifying contacts of contacts and potentially quarantining those if the original contacts become positive, too. This is how countries like South Korea bring flare-ups under control.

Senate leadership also must initiate a broad campaign to test all individuals who have been on the premises of the Senate in the past two weeks, regardless of with whom they engaged.

Third, strictly follow all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on quarantining and isolation. The senators and all staff, family members or others who have tested positive must isolate for at least 10 days, no exceptions. The exact time they can return to in-person interactions depends on their symptoms. They should follow the CDC guidelines.

All contacts of positive cases also need to immediately quarantine for 14 days. CDC guidelines confirm that having a negative test does not end the need for quarantine — a person can become positive and shed virus for up to 14 days after exposure. A test can be negative on one day and positive the next day. 

Taking these steps can break the chains of transmission and allow Congress to get back to the people’s business. Once all the contacts are cleared and we have evidence that all infections have been identified and stopped from transmitting further, the Senate can resume in-person (with masks, distancing). 

The next eight weeks are going to be critical for the future of our nation. We are bracing for an election in the middle of a pandemic, with a highly polarized electorate and Americans of all political leanings weary of whom to trust and what to believe. Unprecedented constitutional questions are looming as the outcome of the president’s encounter with COVID-19 and its impact on this election are unclear. 

Now more than ever we need our leaders safe and healthy so they can guide the country through this difficult moment.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha is dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. 

Tags Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC Contact tracing coronavirus Donald Trump Infectious diseases Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Prevention Quarantine Ron Johnson superspreader Thom Tillis U.S. Senate

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