‘It’s eye-opening how real this is’: How coronavirus made it from CPAC to Congress

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided an update — and a warning — during a White House briefing on the novel coronavirus. Fauci says there are a number of things that can be done to “interfere with the natural flow” of an outbreak such that it infects less people, leading to less deaths.

The revelation that an attendee at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference just outside of Washington tested positive for the virus has set off a chain reaction around Washington, as multiple Republican lawmakers who came in contact with the patient have now self-quarantined.

So far, five Republican members of Congress who interacted with the infected attendee — Sen. Ted Cruz and Reps. Matt Gaetz, Doug Collins, Mark Meadows, and Paul Gosar — announced they are self-quarantining. Gaetz, who rode with President Donald Trump on Air Force One on Monday, has since said he has tested negative but will remain in quarantine.

One member however has chosen not to. Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert was among those exposed to the coronavirus at CPAC, though this week he returned to work and was even been seen giving tours of the Capitol to large groups of children — a decision that has drawn quiet criticism from members of his own party.

“It is irresponsible that he is not self-quarantining,” one elected Republican official told CNN.

As the country deals with disruptions to travel, work, school and other aspects of daily life, coronavirus has wormed its way into the halls of power of the nation’s capital, proving that even some the country’s most prominent politicians are vulnerable to the risk of infection.

That reality has forced a choice on a number of them — either exercise an abundance of caution in the name of public health or project confidence and carry on as normal.

On Tuesday night, Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from northern Virginia, announced he was self-quarantining after coming in contact with a friend who tested positive for coronavirus. This week, Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley of California announced she would be distancing herself from others and closing her Capitol Hill office after discovering she met with an individual there who tested positive for the virus.

The nation’s capital has quickly proven how well-suited it is to spread the virus. Washington is a city of transience — hosting a constant string of conferences, tourists from all over the world, and professionals flying in and out of the area. The basic business of politics is built on the exact kind of activities health professionals say you should avoid: handshakes and face-to-face meetings, constant traveling and spending hours crammed into small rooms with large groups of people.

Despite these warnings, both the President and Vice President Mike Pence say they will continue to shake hands.

“As the President has said, in our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand,” Pence said Tuesday at his daily press briefing on the administration’s coronavirus response. “And I expect the President will continue to do that. I’ll continue to do it.”

Trump, who interacted last week with two of the now-quarantined congressmen, told reporters during his Tuesday visit to Capitol Hill that he’s not going to get tested for coronavirus.

From CPAC to Congress

Coronavirus was likely to come to Congress one way or another. A veritable petri dish where tourists, constituents and lobbyists from across America visit daily and interact with staff and members. Capitol Hill was, in many ways, as vulnerable as any place to an epidemic.

“It’s eye-opening how real this is,” one Republican congressional aide told CNN.

One of the main points of entry thus far has been CPAC, a quintessential Washington confab of political professionals: activists, elected officials, donors and campaign types— all glad-handing over the course of a few days.

Attendees included several members of the Trump administration, as well as the President. Just as Trump was downplaying the potential impact of the disease, many of them were coming dangerously close to the virus itself.

In an unsigned statement sent to supporters Tuesday night, CPAC sought to tamp down the concerns, telling supporters that “ANY individual who had direct contact with the individual who tested positive has been contacted in a one-on-one capacity” as well as “attendees that we believe may have been in the same room with him at some point.”

The statement also indicated that organizers have since learned the infected attendee also went to a reception at CPAC the night before the conference began, but noted the risk of infection for others who attended this reception was “very low.”

The attending physician and Sergeant of Arms of the House have instructed members to no longer shake hands with visitors to their offices. Meanwhile, preparations have been made to support thousands of Hill staffers telecommuting if the need arises. Members have started skipping non-essential gatherings. Hand-sanitizing stations are appearing all around the Capitol.

Sen. Pat Roberts, 83, a Republican from Kansas, told reporters Tuesday his staff had given him a package of wet wipes and instructed him to wipe down any surface he comes into contact with.

One senior Senate aide who spoke to CNN noted that several members of Italy’s parliament, including the leader of one of its national leading parties, have contracted coronavirus amid the extensive outbreak in that country.

“It’s easy to imagine a list in a couple of months of American leaders that looks a lot like that,” the aide said.

CPAC reaction

Since CPAC’s Saturday announcement about its infected attendee, organizers and Republicans connected to the event have downplayed the possibility of a mass exposure. At first, leadership believed that fewer than five members had been exposed based off guidance they had received. But, as the week went on, it became clear that the potential exposure likely included a wider net of people.

Asked by reporters Saturday if he was worried about being exposed to coronavirus after he attended CPAC, Trump said, “I’m not concerned at all.”

And Pence, who also spoke at CPAC and is leading the administration’s effort to deal with the outbreak, told reporters Monday he had not been tested for the virus.

Matt Schlapp, the conference’s chairman, told Fox News on Sunday that neither Trump nor Pence had any contact with the individual and said he saw Trump clean his hands while at the confab in National Harbor, Maryland.

When asked by CNN on Tuesday about the total number of members of Congress who might have had contact with the infected attendee, Schlapp ignored the question.

He instead pointed to another recent conference in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference last week. Multiple AIPAC conference attendees have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus, although there has been no indication any had any interaction with elected officials. Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, told CNN the organization has been in contact with the attending physician in Congress and following federal and local public health guidelines.

“Captains of the ship”

Still, members of both parties have expressed concerns in private about the risks to exposure from their colleagues. Although this coronavirus is highly contagious, health experts have said transmission mostly happens through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

There appears to be little appetite for actually closing down the operations of Congress itself, which still has a great amount of work before it, including a possible economic stimulus package.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been clear that she does not want to shut down the House unless someone in Congress gets very sick — or a large number of members test positive. When the possibility of remote voting was raised Tuesday — something Congress doesn’t currently have the capability to do — Pelosi told her caucus that “we are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave.”