Updated Apr 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Capitol physician says he doesn't have enough tests for all senators

Mitch McConnell in a crowed of reporters

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The Capitol's attending physician told senior Republican staff in a conference call Thursday that he doesn't have the equipment to do either rapid or widespread testing of the 100 senators who return to work Monday, per two sources familiar with the call.

Driving the news: Congressional doctor, Brian Monahan, told the staff he didn't have access to the 15-minute tests the White House has been using. And he said he didn't have enough supply to test asymptomatic senators — he would only be testing people who are ill or show symptoms of the coronavirus.

  • Monahan said his tests would take as long as seven business days to get results back. "My test result can take between two and seven business days to resolve," he said, per the sources. He said the senator would need to be "in a quarantine or isolated situation" until the test result came back.
  • Politico first reported some of the details of this call.

Behind the scenes: The topic of testing arose when one of the Republican chiefs of staff mentioned to Monahan that most senators were in the high-risk category for the virus, and would he be able to offer the testing that is being done at the White House.

  • Monahan said he couldn't offer that kind of testing due to the lack of supply of the high-speed tests used for people visiting with the president.
  • "We don't have the capability to do a large-scale test," Monahan told the staff, per the sources.
  • The questioner followed up by asking Monahan whether he could see if the White House had any extra capacity to test some of the more elderly senators such as Dianne Feinstein, Richard Shelby and Lamar Alexander. Monahan said he'd look into it.

Another questioner asked Monahan whether Senate offices would have to report to neighboring offices, who share hallways, if one of their staff gets the virus.

  • Monahan said he couldn't require senate offices to notify him of positive diagnoses because of patient privacy. But he added he hoped senate offices would tell him anyway so he could do contact tracing.

Between the lines: A number of Democrats — including Feinstein — have publicly expressed their concern about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's decision to bring the senate back into session. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose to keep the House home, citing advice from Monahan.

  • A staffer familiar with the Senate GOP call with Monahan told Axios: "This so-called safety plan is literally a house of cards. So much has to go right in order for one thing not to bring it all down."
  • On the Thursday call, McConnell's chief of staff, Sharon Soderstrom, listed a number of measures they'll be recommending for virus safety. She said they'll have three senators to a table at senate lunches and that staff will be encouraged to strictly enforce social distancing including avoiding moving between rooms in their offices.

Why this matters: This question of testing — and the disappointing answer — is a microcosm of the national flaws in testing and the risks of opening up.

  • The Senate is a high-risk, high-priority group within one of the country's biggest cities. And even they can't get access to Abbott's rapid testing; apparently no one in Washington can, outside of the White House.
  • The inability to identify asymptomatic patients is one of the country's biggest shortcomings. Until we can do that, we can never execute a system of identifying new patients early enough to limit the number of people they will infect.
  • But that problem persists, nationwide and even in the Senate. Long turnaround times compound that risk.

The bottom line: Members of Congress skew older. They work in close quarters, with a lot of other people coming and going. 

  • All the risk factors are there — and yet, because of substandard access to testing, social distancing will be their only way of protecting themselves, and any lapses in social distancing will put lawmakers and staff at risk of catching the virus, even from someone who seems healthy.
  • That's the same reality facing the much poorer, much more vulnerable people who are going back to work in front-line jobs across the country, who don't have the benefit of personal staffs and Capitol Police to help keep everyone else six feet away from them.
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