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Pa. Democrats want to know why they weren’t told when a GOP colleague tested positive for coronavirus

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State Rep. Russ Diamond (front left) said he was told to self-quarantine after Rep. Andrew Lewis (front right) tested positive for COVID-19.
Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News

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HARRISBURG — The already fraught political fight over the coronavirus in Pennsylvania reached a fever pitch this week.

Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania voiced growing outrage Thursday after the belated revelation that one of their Republican colleagues had tested positive for the coronavirus. Allegations of a cover-up prompted calls for the top GOP House leader to resign and even a push for an official investigation, although that prospect was quickly shot down by the state’s top law enforcement official.

Lawmakers learned Wednesday that state Rep. Andrew Lewis (R., Dauphin) had tested positive a full week earlier, on May 20. Lewis said he immediately began self-isolating after receiving the test result, and that he informed House officials, who worked to identify anyone he may have exposed.

But while some Republican lawmakers have confirmed being notified of their potential exposure and self-isolating as a result, Democrats say they only learned of it from a reporter — despite their own daily proximity to Lewis.

The timing of the disclosure continued to fuel anger Thursday, both on the House floor and on social media, raising the stakes on an already fraught partisan split over how to responsibly legislate during the pandemic.

Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) sent a letter late Wednesday to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro seeking an investigation into what he called a failure to notify lawmakers and staff of the positive test, as required under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shapiro on Thursday said that he does not believe a criminal investigation is warranted, but called the allegations “disappointing.”

“It is critical that public officials lead by example and demonstrate common decency during this crisis by following public health guidelines and being transparent with their colleagues and the Department of Health,” Shapiro said.

The legislature passed temporary rules in March allowing its members to vote remotely. In the House, the change allows lawmakers to submit votes to their respective party leaders. But those leaders and committee chairs still need to come to the Capitol to formally consider any legislation.

Many Republicans have opted to travel to the Capitol to vote in person, and a number of them have eschewed wearing face masks, following President Donald Trump in bucking guidance from public health officials. That includes state Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), one of at least two House members who were notified they had to self-quarantine after Lewis tested positive for the virus.

Diamond was also among a handful of lawmakers who attended rallies on the steps of the state Capitol over the last two months, where hundreds of protesters, many standing shoulder to shoulder without wearing face masks, pushed for a swifter reopening of the state’s economy.

At least one other lawmaker was directed to self-quarantine after being exposed to Lewis: Rep. Frank Ryan, a Republican from Lebanon County.

Lewis has said he kept his diagnosis private “out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed.”

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, has said officials followed state and federal guidelines requiring employers to identify employees who were in close contact (within about 6 feet) with a person with a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19. Lewis had last been at the Capitol on May 14, so those in isolation ended their quarantine Thursday.

“Absolutely anyone, from anywhere in the Capitol, who may have been exposed within those guidelines was notified,” Straub said.

But since an incubation period lasts two to 14 days, Democrats pointed out that Lewis could have been infectious as early as May 4. He attended sessions in person the weeks of May 4 and May 12.

Republicans have countered that the House, through its human resources department, followed contact tracing precautions and notified those people Lewis had come in contact with. That it happened to be Republicans was simply because that is who Lewis had interacted with, said House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster).

“It was an element of timing, it was not by partisan design,” Cutler said on the House floor Thursday. “You only contact trace individuals who had been in contact.”

Cutler said the legislature is also bound by a medical privacy law known as HIPAA. House leaders have cited the law in defending their decision not to disclose even the number of people who were directed to self-quarantine.

Democrats on Thursday said they’re not after names but general information when a member or staffer tests positive.

Tensions in the chamber were high already high, with disagreements over how to best respond to the pandemic largely drawn along partisan and geographic lines.

Democrats concerned with the death toll in hard-hit Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania have clashed with Republicans frustrated with the economic devastation in less affected areas, which they blame in part on Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown orders.

But the anger this week reached a new level.

Rep. Brian Sims, who sits on a House committee with Lewis, posted an impassioned 11-minute video on Facebook late Wednesday ripping Republicans. It had more than one million views as of Thursday.

LIVE: I never thought I’d see a day like This at work!

Posted by Brian Sims on Wednesday, May 27, 2020

And on the House floor on Thursday, Sims excoriated Republicans for keeping Democrats in the dark for a full week about Lewis’ condition, and took the rare step of calling out House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and asking for his resignation.

“To pick the two or three people that you think might have been most exposed and to secretly tell them while the rest of us didn’t have the benefit of protecting our families, protecting our friends, protecting our own health is criminal,” Sims said.

Turzai said he was not informed about Lewis. “We are not using this facility to make these kinds of statements,” said Turzai, who later added that had he been infected, he would have disclosed it and believes all legislators should follow the same protocol. He said he would support a change in the chamber’s rules to require members to self-disclose.

Earlier, Rep. Rob Matzie, a Democrat representing Allegheny and Beaver Counties, echoed that pledge.

“We’re held to a higher standard as elected officials on everything we do,” Matzie said. “I have to believe that if Ben Franklin had COVID-19, he’d tell everyone.”

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