The names of the legislators who have tested positive have not been released
WASHINGTON — Three Texas House Democrats have tested positive for COVID-19 from Washington, D.C., according to Texas House Democratic Caucus leadership.
They’re among nearly 60 lawmakers who fled the state Monday to break quorum in the House, part of an effort to block the passage of a GOP-led elections bill. Most members are staying in the same hotel.
One member found out about their positive test result late Friday evening, but they do not have symptoms, caucus officials said. All House lawmakers were alerted and received a rapid test following the member’s positive result.
Two additional members tested positive in a rapid test on Saturday morning. One has mild symptoms, caucus leadership said.
The three who tested positive on the rapid tests will receive a PCR coronavirus test, a more sensitive and accurate version of a COVID-19 test. The positive members will isolate for 10 days before taking a follow-up test, according to a memo obtained by the American-Statesman.
The three members are vaccinated. The caucus did not release their names.
There was a notable increase in the use of face coverings among lawmakers and Democratic staffers at their hotel on Saturday morning. Since members arrived late Monday, masks have been used sparingly as they moved through the lobby and held meetings around the city.
“The House Democratic Caucus is following all CDC guidance and protocols,” Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “This is a sober reminder that COVID is still with us, and though vaccinations offer tremendous protection, we still must take necessary precautions. We are in touch with public health experts in Texas to provide additional guidance. Our caucus will follow all recommendations from public health experts as we continue our work.”
The delta variant, a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus, has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States. On Thursday, Travis County slid back to tightened restrictions after four cases of the variant were confirmed in the Austin area.
Unvaccinated people remain most at risk of contracting the coronavirus and having a more serious illness. All Texas House Democrats have been vaccinated, the caucus said. Breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals are rare but possible.
Rep. Donna Howard of Austin is a former critical care nurse and consulted a public health physician to determine safety protocols for Democrats on the ground in Washington.
She said lawmakers have followed CDC guidelines throughout their trip — which state that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing unless required by law or private regulation — and they continue to follow public health guidelines now that three positive cases have emerged within their ranks.
“We have been following CDC guidelines and what we are seeing from this is that, as we’ve been told, the Delta variant is more highly contagious, and can actually infect people who are fully vaccinated,” Howard said in an interview. “The good news is that you shouldn’t have much of a problem, even if you test positive, if you’re vaccinated. It also reminds us why it’s so critically important that everyone gets the vaccination.”
In a memo to lawmakers, Howard said plans are underway to create a regular system of testing. The caucus also will create strategies to decrease the chances of coronavirus spread, she wrote.
“For the next few days, members and staff should take extra efforts to wear masks and social distance as COVID-19 tests determine the spread of the virus,” Howard wrote, adding that those at risk of serious illness should wear a mask and social distance. “Any others should also wear a mask and distance as the group determines if anyone else tests positive.”
As of July 14, the average daily case rate for the past seven days in Washington D.C. was 3.75 cases per 100,000 people and the city continued to be at the lowest phase of spread, according to the city’s coronavirus tracker.
Texas Democrats have met with a slew of Capitol Hill Democrats this week, including U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Vice President Kamala Harris also met with them on Tuesday.
During an interview on Saturday, before news of the positive tests broke, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio spoke about the coronavirus risk among members gathered for the quorum break.
“I was a guy who was wearing a mask on the last day of session — I have my protocols and I’m on a heightened sense of awareness,” said Martinez Fischer, who wore a blue disposable mask during the interview. “Everybody handles their business differently. I minimize occasions to be in any situation where there’s an elevated risk of transmission. I’m vaccinated, but I live my life as if I’m not.”
Texas lawmakers dealt with multiple positive COVID-19 cases throughout the regular session in the Capitol. The first positive case came three days after the Legislature convened in January.
House Speaker Dade Phelan has pressured Democrats to return to Texas. On Thursday, he announced plans to charter a plane that would be “on standby” in Washington on Saturday, ready to bring lawmakers back to Austin. He also removed Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, from his post as speaker pro tempore of the House.
But Phelan expressed his sympathies for members who tested positive Saturday, and said he reached out to state health commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt for additional guidance about fully vaccinated individuals exposed to COVID-19.
“Kim and I extend our prayers for safety and health for the members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus who tested positive for COVID-19 while in Washington, D.C.,” Phelan said.