A few days after last week’s Capitol riot, members of Congress and staffers who were forced to take shelter together received a memo warning that their time spent together may have exposed them to COVID-19.
On January 6, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building while members of Congress were formally verifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. After the rioters breached the building, lawmakers and staffers took shelter in secure rooms together until it was safe enough for them to leave. And this past Sunday, some members of the House and Capitol staffers received a memo warning that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 while sheltering in one of those safe rooms, CNN reports.
“On Wednesday January 6, many members of the House community were in protective isolation in [a] room located in a large committee-hearing space. The time in this room was several hours for some and briefer for others. During this time, individuals may have been exposed to another occupant with coronavirus infection,” Brian P. Monahan, M.D., Capitol attending physician, wrote in the memo.
The memo advised that those who may have been exposed during the Capitol riot should continue their daily COVID-19 risk reduction measures, including completely a daily symptom check, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing. “Additionally, individuals should obtain an RT-PCR coronavirus test next week as a precaution,” Dr. Monahan wrote.
The memo did not specifically mention that anyone in protective isolation had tested positive for COVID-19. But a video taken inside the safe room showed people in close quarters—including several who were not wearing masks and refused to take masks when offered. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman from New Jersey announced today that she tested positive for COVID-19 and “believes she was exposed during protective isolation in the U.S. Capitol building as a result of insurrectionist riots,” according to a press release.
In fact, experts say the entire event—which consisted of a crowd of thousands of yelling, largely unmasked people who were definitely not practicing social distancing—could become a public health concern due to the risk for coronavirus spread. “The attempted coup was not only a terrifying attack on our democracy, but also a potential public health disaster,” Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., virologist at Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, wrote on Twitter. And because so few of the rioters were arrested or detained, it will be “that much harder to track the new cases they will bring back to their communities,” she said.
“It has all the elements of what we warn people about,” Anne Rimoin, Ph.D., professor of epidemiologist at the UCLA School of Public Health, told the New York Times. “People yelling and screaming, chanting, exerting themselves—all of those things provide opportunity for the virus to spread, and this virus takes those opportunities.”
Some experts expressed similar concerns about the Black Lives Matter protests over the past summer. But research found those events did not actually lead to a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, likely because the protestors took precautions, such as wearing face masks, using hand sanitizer, and getting a coronavirus test shortly afterward. And public health experts recognized that, for many, protesting against police brutality and racial injustice was worth the risk, SELF reported previously.
The same certainly could not be said about the violent insurrection that took place last week, which also happened to occur at a time when the U.S. is reaching record numbers of COVID-19 cases and is approaching 375,000 deaths due to the virus.