In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress "is a highly efficient virus-spreading machine," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) declared in a statement Tuesday aimed at boosting testing for lawmakers.
The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was taking issue with the rare bipartisan, bicameral decision of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to spurn the White House's offer of enough gear to test Congress.
The two leaders issued a statement saying the equipment should go to frontline workers, but Alexander apparently thinks it makes no sense to let lawmakers and their staffs go traveling all around the nation, untested, after spending time in the Washington, D.C., area, where Covid-19 cases are still rampant.
“With the increasing number of diagnostic tests available, I expect attitudes to change quickly about accepting the president’s offer to test members of Congress for COVID-19, especially as the House of Representatives comes back to work," Alexander said in a statement.
"From a public health point of view, this is not mostly about protecting members of Congress. It is about protecting the people members might infect," he explained. "Bringing 100 or 535 members from across the country to Washington, D.C.— a coronavirus hotspot — and then sending them home each weekend creates a highly efficient virus spreading machine."
If it turns out some lawmakers or staffers are infected, it would be a daunting task to track down and test everyone they might have come in contact with at the Capitol or back home and along their travel routes.
"You would have to hire an army of public health workers to track and test all of those people that members of Congress might infect, not to mention their staffs and other Capitol workers," Alexander said. "The country will soon be able to test two million Americans each week. This is enough to test 535 members of Congress each week before they go home to make sure they don’t spread the disease from a virus hotspot into every section of the country."
There was no immediate word on whether the two chambers' leaders would change course.
While Congress's physician and sergeants at arms have been aggressively pushing out safety measures and suggestions, the lawmakers have adopted them in a fairly haphazard fashion, with some adhering carefully to mask standards and some not at all.