July 31, 2021

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Amid fears over COVID cases in Congress, White House, experts urge vaccinations – USA TODAY

5 min read
  • Rep. Vern Buchanan and aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi test positive for COVID-19
  • Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, urges vaccinations
  • Dr. Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins calls COVID a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

WASHINGTON – A spate of new COVID-19 infections has rippled through Congress, the White House and a band of Texas state lawmakers in recent days, stoking renewed concern among officials in Washington about how best to protect against the virus as the delta variant causes a nationwide spike in cases.

Health officials say the best protection remains vaccination, noting the shots are key to reducing the risks of serious illness, hospitalization and death.

“If you’re a fully vaccinated individual and you’re meeting with somebody who has COVID, you really don’t have much to fear from the virus. The vaccines are very robust,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told USA TODAY. “What we’re seeing now in the United States, as the CDC director said, is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. That’s where the risk is.”

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Vice President Kamala Harris gestures as she speaks July 13, 2021, while meeting with Democratic members of the Texas State Legislature at the American Federation of Teachers building near the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., announced Monday that he had tested positive with mild symptoms despite being vaccinated months earlier. He said he was quarantining with mild, flu-like symptoms.

“I look forward to returning to work as soon as possible,” said Buchanan. “In the meantime, this should serve as a reminder that although the vaccines provide a very high-degree of protection, we must remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19.”

A White House staffer and press aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have also tested positive, the White House and the speaker’s office confirmed on Tuesday. Pelosi’s office said the aide tested positive after meeting with a group of Texas Democrats who came to Washington last week.

Related:US life expectancy decreased by 1.5 years during the pandemic – the largest drop since WWII

The Texas state legislators had fled their home state amid a battle over voting rights. Six of them have now tested positive for COVID-19.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the speaker’s press team has been mostly working remotely and the infected staffer hasn’t come into contact with the speaker.

“Our office will continue to follow the guidance of the Office of Attending Physician closely,” Hammill said, referring to the Capitol’s in-house doctor.

A White House staffer also tested positive after attending an event last week with the Pelosi staffer, spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed on Tuesday.

“This individual was out of the office when they were tested yesterday, and they’ve stayed out of the office,” Psaki said.

A White House official said medical staff have conducted contact tracing interviews and determined there were “no close contacts” among White House principals and staff with the infected individual, who has mild symptoms.  

On Capitol Hill, the COVID-19 testing site was busy Tuesday after a lull for the past month. At least 15 people waited in line at one point in the afternoon.

Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, released a memo Tuesday warning about the “severe threat” of the delta variant of COVID-19 for unvaccinated people. But he didn’t recommend a return to requiring masks, as several counties nationwide have done.

“I urge unvaccinated individuals to come for vaccination at any time,” he said.

“The Centers for Disease Control does not generally require vaccinated individuals to wear a mask indoors at this time,” Monahan added. “Despite the excellent protective value of the vaccine in preventing hospitalization and death, there is still a possibility a fully vaccinated individual could acquire infection in their nose and throat, mild symptoms, or the ability to transmit the coronavirus infection to others.”

The Capitol campus has largely reopened since the Jan. 6 insurrection, with temporary fencing removed and the National Guard gone. But Capitol tours aren’t expected to return any time soon because of the surging cases of the delta variant, according to a House leadership aide.

The Texas lawmakers, who had fled their home state to block passage of voting legislation, tested positive after a whirlwind tour of meetings with members of Congress and Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris was among the first to receive the vaccine.

The vice president’s office said she has since tested negative for COVID-19 and is being monitored.

Precautions against COVID-19 on the Capitol Hill became as contentious as the rest of the country. The House required lawmakers to wear masks while on the House floor, which some members bristled at. Both the House and Senate staggered voting to have fewer people in each chamber at one time. The House still allows remote voting, relayed through colleagues.

The House dropped the mask requirement in mid-June, as more members and staffers became vaccinated. The Senate never required masks, but some members and staffers wear them.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said Tuesday he would like to reinstate the mask requirement. He says that view is shared by others with unvaccinated children.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would work with Monahan about guidance on masks and the Delta variant.

“We’re going to listen to science, plain and simple,” Schumer said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who suffered polio as a child, has been a vocal advocate for vaccinations. He said Tuesday that 97% of hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people.

“These shots need to get into everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for, that we went through last year,” McConnell said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective but do not provide 100% protection. That means a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the CDC.

However, vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die. Of the more than 159 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S., about 5,500 have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 as of July 12, according to CDC.

“Unfortunately, cases are now rising, particularly in communities with very low vaccination rates,” President Joe Biden said Monday in touting the economic recovery. “Just four states account for nearly 40 percent of all cases last week. Virtually all hospitalizations and deaths are occurring among unvaccinated Americans. These tragedies are avoidable.”

Adalja said the goal of vaccines was to reduce deaths and hospitalizations from the illness, which they accomplished, and to reduce spread of the disease. But he said the virus will remain in circulation even with widespread vaccinations.

“Ten years from now there will be COVID cases,” Adalja said. “Our goal is to deny the ability of the virus to make our hospitals go into crisis and make it a much more manageable respiratory virus, the way we have made influenza or other respiratory viruses. That’s what the vaccine accomplishes.”

More:

White House official, Pelosi aide test positive for COVID-19 after attending event together

Those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can be infected, but serious illness is rare: ‘Nothing in this world is 100%’

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