COVID-19 infections are resurfacing in Congress, after weeks of semi-normal life in the Capitol following a vaccination push.
In the days since word began to spread about a positive coronavirus case in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, at least one other congressional staff employee has tested positive, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Rep. Kai Kahele’s office confirmed that a member of his staff contracted COVID-19 after being vaccinated.
“Yes, a fully vaccinated member of the Congressman’s office tested positive,” Michael Ahn, the office's communications director, told BuzzFeed News. “We are in coordination with the Office of the Attending Physician, and our office policies follow all recommendations and guidelines from the CDC and OAP.”
The new infections come as multiple states are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, driven by the more contagious Delta variant. The infections are chiefly among people who are unvaccinated, who make up more than 97% of people who get sick enough to be hospitalized, according to the CDC. But in rare cases vaccinated people can also get sick, in what are known as breakthrough infections, though the vaccine overwhelmingly protects them from developing severe symptoms. Clusters of such breakthrough infections have been reported across the country.
The new infections are already changing behavior on the Hill, after Axios reported on Tuesday that staff members in the White House and Pelosi’s office had tested positive. Multiple staffers told BuzzFeed News about long lines at the Capitol's coronavirus testing site this week. Pelosi, after the House attending physician gave the OK to unmask, is once again wearing a mask. Journalists and some senior aides at the Capitol in recent days also took extra precautions by wearing face coverings.
Politico reported Thursday that the Office of the Attending Physician is considering whether to suggest wearing masks in the Capitol again. In a memo to congressional offices earlier this week, the attending physician's office called the Delta variant a “dire health risk to unvaccinated individuals” and noted that “Several vaccinated Congressional staff members and 1 Member of Congress” have contracted breakthrough infections.
Reached on Thursday, staffers responded to the new infections with reactions varying from not being concerned at all to one staffer saying there’s “a sense of growing concern.” Another staffer said people “are freaked out more after vaccinated people are positive.”
“Yes, there is a real sense of unease, and a number of offices, even those with fully vaccinated staff, are encouraging work from home and urging folks to consider wearing masks when they’re in the office,” a senior congressional aide told BuzzFeed News.
In just the last week, Republican leaders in Congress have publicly advised people to get the vaccine. Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House, received his first dose of the COVID vaccination Sunday.
“Especially with the Delta variant becoming a lot more aggressive and seeing another spike, it was a good time to do it,” he said in an interview with Nola.com.