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Debate Over Reopening Puts Partisan Divide On Full Display

Members of the House stand after they passed the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus stimulus package in March at the Capitol.
Members of the House stand after they passed the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus stimulus package in March at the Capitol.

Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro is not on board with how his Republican governor has let the Lone Star State reopen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Greg Abbott let Texas' stay-at-home orders expire last month, and businesses resumed their operations with limited capacity.

With the state's caseload on the rise, Castro said it's all happening too soon.

"There is more testing in Texas now than there was in the beginning, but not nearly enough, or to scale that you would need to able to say, 'OK we're testing enough people and our curve is where we would need it to be,' " Castro says.

So Castro is moving on to warning constituents of the risks, and his office has ramped up services to connect those in need with unemployment payments and food assistance. And when it's possible, his staff is connecting them with testing.

Many Republicans are taking a controversial stance by reopening without sufficient testing in place and are blaming Democrats for the country's current economic woes.

"The people want to go back, the numbers are getting to a point where they can, and there just seems to be no effort on certain blue states to get back into gear," President Trump recently told reporters in the Rose Garden.

It's a reminder of the country's partisan divide that's on full display in the debate over when and how to return to normal business.

"I think what we are seeing now is lawmakers and governors and all sorts of stakeholders having to balance economic pressures with public health pressures," said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "It's a difficult thing to anticipate. We see a lot of stress from people who are anxious to get back to work, understandably, and also people who are anxious at the idea of spending more time in the community while there is a still an epidemic under way."

Lawmakers are weighing the coronavirus risks firsthand.

This month, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House returned to Capitol Hill after several weeks away.

The House returned Friday solely to vote on two measures: a new wave of coronavirus relief and a rules change to allow remote voting and hearings during the pandemic. Republicans are opposed to both moves and have criticized Democrats for their delays in reconvening.

The partisan divide resonates in the reopening debate for the country and for Congress, says Dr. David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. And it could come down to an urban versus rural debate.

"I think the two parties have dug themselves in a little bit. Perhaps the Democrats are a little bit stronger on supporting the public health mission," Relman said. "The Republicans are focusing upon the economic impact of the pandemic and ... perhaps coming from parts of the country where population density is less, disease activity maybe a little less obvious."

Coronavirus risks on Capitol Hill

Days after the Senate returned for the first time since late March, a staff member for Sen. Lamar Alexander tested positive for COVID-19. And Alexander, R-Tenn., was forced to quarantine just ahead of a high-profile hearing for the Senate health committee featuring several administration witnesses also in quarantine.

It highlighted risks facing Congress without a widespread testing program in place.

"Folks like these need ongoing virus testing, and by testing everyone at least twice a week, you can catch a new infection before too many days of contagiousness pass undetected," said Relman, who is also chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in California.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, passed on an offer from the administration to accept 1,000 rapid tests for Congress. The move was met with mixed reviews by members of both sides of the aisle.

"To feel like there was some special testing going on, I don't think that sat right with me, and I don't think that sat right with leadership," said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., who is currently working on a regional task force focused on reopening efforts.

Sherrill's colleague on the bipartisan task force, New York Republican Rep. Pete King, agrees. But he also wonders whether at least Capitol Hill workers should get regular testing.

"Thousands of workers have to come to the Capitol and then also you have, Washington, D.C., right now has a very high infection rate," King said. "The government has to function, but we run the risk of spreading the risk all over the country, so it becomes counterproductive. "

So far, eight members of Congress have tested positive for the illness, and more than two dozen others have quarantined. And reports for the Capitol complex don't stop there, with more than 50 cases reported among its workforce by late last week.

Fifteen Capitol Police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a congressional aide. And among a construction crew working on renovations of the Cannon House Office Building, 22 workers have tested or are presumed to have caught the illness, the aide said. Ten people with the Architect of the Capitol, the umbrella group for workers in maintenance, food service and other support role, have been affected.

And at least four members of Congress, including Alexander, have reported that staff members have tested positive.

Relman says that ideally, everyone working in the Capitol building should be tested daily, but twice weekly testing is a compromise as a result of shortages. And that needs to include everyone, from members to support workers.

"They, too. deserve exactly the same plan," he said. As a result, he says, the 1,000 test offer from the administration is a drop in the bucket, and only gives the superficial appearance of doing the right thing.

A rare bipartisan effort

Last month, Sherrill reached out to King to form the bipartisan task force to develop legislation to guide the safe reopening of the Northeast region.

In the past several weeks, the task force has consulted with doctors and other experts to track down gaps in current efforts to reopen their economies.

"Despite different political backgrounds and even despite different economic areas that we all serve in, so many of the issues can be handled if we start to talk together and come up with solutions," Sherrill said of their work.

The members have found a common theme to address: testing shortages. And a critical need to boost federal leadership when it comes to that testing.

King notes there hasn't been this level of coordination in the past, and that needs to change.

"We realize now we have to, there has to be national testing standards, ... it has to be a federal coordination of this," King said.

Sherrill notes that while national testing levels have increased capacity since March, the tests remain individualized to the company that manufactures them and that is a hindrance. For example, each company's tests may have unique components, such as reagent formulas and swabs, that could be standardized and substituted with generics, which could help boost capacity dramatically.

King and Sherrill argue legislation installing new standards for testing components could be a key to reopening the economy. And now the group is weighing plans to roll out such a proposal.

"You really need ... some government promulgating, some standards, some regulations to say, 'let's make this more generic,'" Sherill said. "That could get us to the testing capacity we need. So we're already looking at that and some fixes to make sure we have all the resources our region needs to safely get everyone back to work and not face another outbreak."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.