Secrecy on legislator's COVID-19 illness roils a statehouse

(Martin Boutros/The Patriot-News via AP)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A bitter partisan fight over a Pennsylvania lawmaker's decision to wait a week before disclosing his COVID-19 diagnosis spread to the House floor Thursday, and the state attorney general declined to investigate.

A day after Republican Rep. Andrew Lewis' announcement through a news release that he had self-isolated and recovered from the illness that has killed at least 100,000 people in the U.S., Democrats expressed anger and demanded changes that would require masks on the floor and in committee meetings.

The Legislature has continued to meet during the pandemic under rules that permit lawmakers to vote from home or from their Capitol offices, or to vote in person. Lewis, from a Harrisburg-area district, said he was tested two weeks ago, learned the results last week and stayed quiet out of respect for others in his circle.

Rep. Brian Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat who put an emotional video on social media after Lewis made his announcement, said in floor remarks Thursday that the decision to keep the positive test a secret put others at risk. 

Sims discounted House Republicans' response, which has led at least two members to self-isolate because they sit near Lewis in the chamber.

“To pretend that a member here coming to session only interacts with one, two, three people, that’s ridiculous, we all know better,” Sims said.

Sims said House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican from north of Pittsburgh, should resign.

Turzai said that he had been unaware of Lewis' diagnosis and that as for himself, he would disclose if he became infected.

“We are not using this facility to make those kind of statements,” Turzai said, scolding Sims for calling him by his first and last names only. “My title is speaker.”

Rep. Rob Matzie, a Democrat also from north of Pittsburgh, said lawmakers are held to higher standards than the general public and should all disclose if they test positive for the COVID-19 virus.

“I have to believe that if Ben Franklin had COVID-19, he'd tell everyone,” Matzie said, invoking the name of a Pennsylvania hero.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For older adults, people with existing health problems and some others, it can cause severe illness and death. 

Lewis said he had a fever for a day and a brief cough but has fully recovered. 

The majority-holding Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal to adjourn for more than a week to make time to change the policy on illness disclosures.

“I recognize that there’s a lot of concern, but I think that individuals are also confusing contact with a positive individual versus someone who has been put in quarantine because of their contact with an individual,” Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, a Pittsburgh-area Democrat, proposed requiring face masks on the floor and during committee meetings, and to require disclosure of a positive test to leaders of both parties. It was not immediately acted upon as Dermody had requested.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro declined requests by fellow Democrats to criminally investigate how Lewis' diagnosis was handled. Shapiro released a statement urging lawmakers to “demonstrate common decency."

“While I understand their frustration and concern, a criminal investigation is not warranted based on our initial review,” Shapiro said. “Capitol staff and state House members with concerns about COVID-19 contact tracing and exposure should contact the independent chief clerk of the state House and continue to follow the guidance of the secretary of health.”

Lewis' news release said that other members and staff had also isolated. He has not responded to messages seeking comment.

Leaders and GOP administrators followed state and federal guidelines and respected individuals' health privacy rights, said Mike Straub, spokesperson for the Republican caucus.

After Lewis tested positive, there was an effort to determine whom he had been in close contact with on May 14, his most recent day in the Capitol. House Republican human resources officials notified people who had been within 6 feet of him for about 10 minutes, and all of them subsequently isolated themselves, Straub said.

“Today’s 14 days, and the folks that we’re aware of that have been self-quarantined have not shown any symptoms,” Straub said. 

Aides and other staff members have been told to wear masks in the Capitol's public spaces, but that requirement does not apply to elected representatives.

House Democrats are doing their own contact tracing, trying to determine who might have been near Lewis and others who have self-isolated, spokesperson Bill Patton said.

Two Republicans from Lebanon County, Reps. Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan, have said they were told of Lewis' positive test result.

“From the moment I was notified I self-quarantined and was given a list of the symptoms to look for, and procedures to follow in event of illness,” Ryan wrote on Facebook. He has not experienced symptoms, he said.

Diamond, who sits near Lewis and Ryan, said he has experienced no symptoms and has not been tested.

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