SALT LAKE CITY — During the first week of Utah’s legislative session, rapid testing has already identified three positive COVID-19 cases on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
That’s according to Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko.
“We’ve done 581 tests and identified three positives,” Hudachko said Friday in a text to the Deseret News. He declined to provide any more details on the three positives for “patient privacy reasons.”
Hudachko said the rapid testing of lawmakers and staff began on the first day of the session Tuesday, and “the protocol is anyone who tests positive is not allowed in the building.” He declined to provide details on dates of when the cases were detected. When asked whether any lawmakers were in close contact to the individuals who tested positive, Hudachko said he didn’t know.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters Friday morning one or two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 through rapid testing. He said no legislators so far have tested positive. Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, said an intern is among the few who have tested positive.
“So it’s working,” Adams said of the testing measures.
When asked if the Legislature could end its session early after passing the state budget if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs, Adams noted that many lawmakers have already had COVID-19 or received the vaccine. Some are teachers, work in health care or are over age 70.
“We hope that doesn’t happen, but we’ve always wondered what would happen if we had an outbreak. And you can see we’re trying to be as careful as possible. But no, we haven’t really anticipated that we were going to close or shut down after the base budget,” Adams said.
When a reporter asked in a separate press availability about word that an intern may have tested positive, House Speaker Brad Wilson said he didn’t have the current information, adding that he doesn’t “usually ask” about people’s health information.
“But if someone does test positive, we do another test to see it validated and then we ship them home, and so we’re still kind of working through some of that, but it’s a valuable tool,” Wilson said.
Wilson said it’s not surprising that COVID-19 would be detected at some point during the session.
“I’m sure that over the course of the session, someone’s going to show up here positive,” Wilson said, laughing. “I mean, there’s no doubt about it.”
Asked if legislative leaders have been discussing potentially ending the session early due to COVID-19, Wilson said “nothing specifically.”
“I think we’re taking it sort of day by day,” he said. “We’re really the first state in the country to try this. Other states, many of them have pushed their sessions back. We’ve got important work to do and we’ve got to try and get it done. Whether we last 45 days or not is anyone’s guess, I sure hope we do. We’ll keep motoring on though.”
Legislative leaders announced Friday they would reopen Utah’s Capitol to the public for in-person participation in the session on Monday. The Capitol has been closed to the public for at least the first week of the session after the U.S. Capitol was breached Jan 6.
Hudachko said the Utah Department of Health is “definitely in communication” with the Legislature on what to do if an outbreak occurs at the Capitol.
“There is no hard-and-fast number set, though,” he said about what would be considered an outbreak.
In a joint statement issued later Friday, the House and Senate said the “Legislature is taking precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by regularly testing, wearing masks, practicing physical distancing and encouraging virtual meetings.
“The process is working,” the statement continued. “Positive cases are being caught and the legislative branch is taking extra steps to protect lawmakers, staff, interns and the public. Evaluations are ongoing and the situation is being closely monitored. Lawmakers are safely working on behalf of Utahns to debate and consider important issues and fund vital programs, including education, health departments and social services.
“To respect the privacy of staff and legislators, we will not provide details on the number of positive COVID-19 tests or give out specific names,” the House and Senate statement said. “Individuals who need to be informed to prevent the spread of the virus will be notified. Lawmakers will continue to keep the public and media informed of any updates that may impact public participation or reporting.”
Katie Matheson, spokeswoman with the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah that has been monitoring the Legislature’s meetings online this week, said “I don’t think anyone’s surprised” by the three cases.
Positive cases are being caught and the legislative branch is taking extra steps to protect lawmakers, staff, interns and the public.
–Utah House and Senate joint statement
Pointing to some lawmakers who appeared not to be wearing masks properly during House floor time earlier Friday — with some not wearing them at all, or some wearing masks below their noses — Matheson said it “already looks like some lawmakers are taking COVID more seriously than others, which is absolutely a huge concern not just for COVID outbreaks but the example they’re setting.”
At one point during House floor time Friday, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, stood to speak, and one lawmaker asked him to take his mask off, laughing.
King paused, lifted his hand to his mask, then stopped and lowered his hand saying, “I don’t want to take my mask off. Thank you, though.”
Lawmakers are required to wear face coverings while in the House and Senate chambers, but have been permitted to take their masks off if speaking. Many do. King chose not to.
Matheson said she hopes legislative leaders are listening to health experts and “personal ideology doesn’t get in the way of the best practices when it comes to keeping everyone safe and healthy.”
Matheson credits lawmakers for conducting rapid testing daily to detect COVID-19 cases on Capitol Hill, but “it’s still not a replacement for social distancing and mask wearing.” She also said she “would hope” there would be a plan in place if an outbreak occurred at the Capitol complex.
“We’ll see if there will be any more (cases) next week,” she said.