Opinion

What was virus-carrying Paul thinking?

  • Under fire: Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator, continued his routine on Capitol Hill after testing for Covid-19
  • Amber Phillips

Rand Paul just confirmed that he went about his daily business as a United States senator for a week while there was a possibility he had coronavirus. Turns out, he did test positive — meaning that Paul brought the virus right into the halls the US Capitol.

Amid reports that he was at work and in the Senate gym over the past few days while waiting to hear if he had the virus, Paul’s office initially declined to answer questions about when Paul took the test. He finally issued a statement yesterday saying he took the test a week ago, on March 16, on the advice of his doctor because he has a compromised lung. He didn’t have any symptoms.

As he was waiting for the test results, instead of quarantining at his Washington home as health officials advise, Paul went to work. The Washington Post reported that he had lunch with his fellow Senate Republicans. He was around staffers and journalists. He worked out in the Senate gym on Sunday morning. Another senator said he saw him using the pool on Sunday. Hours later, his office announced he had tested positive.

His office defends Paul’s decision by saying he left the Senate after realising he tested positive. “As soon as he got the results, he left the building,” the office said.

Health officials advise Americans to act as if they are carriers of the virus and to avoid social contact as much as possible. Avoiding social contact is not as feasible for a member of Congress, especially as the Senate debates an historic $1.8 trillion stimulus package. But Paul had more reason than most to believe that he did indeed have the virus.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says if you are sick or think you may be, “Do not leave [home], except to get medical care. Do not visit public areas.”

Paul attended a fundraiser in Kentucky on March 7 with, by his description, “hundreds” of people spread out in a museum. Two attendees later tested positive. The event came as many Americans were starting social-distancing. A week later, the CDC issued guidelines to avoid groups of 50. The next day, President Donald Trump issued guidelines to Americans to avoid gatherings of more than ten.

Paul says he took the test despite having no symptoms on the advice of his doctor. Paul had part of his lung removed last year after an attack by a neighbour.

“Given that my wife and I had travelled extensively during the weeks prior to Covid-19 social-distancing practices,” he said, “and that I am at a higher risk for serious complications from the virus due to having part of my lung removed seven months ago, I took a Covid-19 test when I arrived in DC last Monday.

“I felt that it was highly unlikely that I was positive since I have had no symptoms of the illness, nor have I had contact with anyone who has either tested positive for the virus or been sick.”

Paul’s decision has real legislative impacts. Utah’s GOP senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, said they would self-quarantine now after spending time with Paul over the past few days. Congress has no way to vote remotely, although some lawmakers are trying to change that. That means Paul, Lee and Romney will not get to vote on the relief package. That tightens Senate Republicans’ margins to get it passed.

Paul’s actions stand in contrast to other members of Congress. More than two dozen of them have self-quarantined after brushes with the coronavirus, even if they didn’t have symptoms and even if they tested negative. After two House lawmakers said last week they tested positive for the coronavirus, at least a dozen of their colleagues immediately stayed home from their first point of contact.

Several told their staffs to stay home as well. Ted Cruz finished one quarantine only to be told he had come in contact with someone else with the coronavirus. He went right back into it.

Paul, who is also an ophthalmologist and who often uses his background in a medical profession to frame his policy thinking, is now taking heat.

“I’ve never commented about a fellow senator’s choices/actions. Never once,” tweeted Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona, on Sunday. “This, America, is absolutely irresponsible. You cannot be near other people while waiting for coronavirus test results. It endangers others & likely increases the spread of the virus.”

Fellow Republican Kevin Cramer, from North Dakota, said: “It seems a little bit peculiar that you’d be waiting for a test and assessing a situation that would lead you to that conclusion, or also lead to the conclusion to carry on business as usual. People have been quarantining for less.”

As Paul did his day job despite awaiting test results, more than 100 million Americans were under stay-at-home orders to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Healthy people are being told to stay in their homes and not go to work. Primary elections are being postponed. It’s all so that hospital workers do not get overwhelmed with sick people and not enough equipment to help them.

Congress is understandably operating under somewhat different guidelines. Staffing has been restricted to only the most essential, and McConnell has structured voting so that only ten or so senators are in the chamber at a time. Reporters try to keep their distance. But overall, Congress requires sharing some space as it works towards getting people and businesses relief as fast as it can.

Paul’s situation raises another thorny question: why did he get tested in the first place if he wasn’t having any symptoms?

The United States has a severe shortage of tests, and Vice-President Mike Pence says almost daily that people without symptoms should not get tests. Yet members of Congress — Paul included — and athletes have received tests even if they were not showing symptoms. Paul says his doctor recommended it because he had travelled widely over the past few weeks, and because of his compromised lung.

It ended up being a good thing he got tested because, as he says, if he hadn’t, he would have had no reason to believe he was a carrier of the virus and would have gone about his daily life.

“For those who want to criticise me for lack of quarantine, realise that if the rules on testing had been followed to a T, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” he said. “The current guidelines would not have called for me to get tested nor quarantined. It was my extra precaution, out of concern for my damaged lung, that led me to get tested.”

He added: “I believe we need more testing immediately, even among those without symptoms.”

Paul says he was trying to follow best medical practices because he was at risk for complications from the virus. But given that — and his medical background — you might think he would be extra sensitive to the implications of spreading it. Why didn’t he understand how dangerous being around other people, including older senators, could be if there was even the remote possibility he had the virus?

Amber Phillips analyses politics for The Washington Post’s non-partisan politics blog and authors The 5-Minute Fix newsletter, a rundown of the day’s biggest political news. She was previously the one-woman DC bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from as far away as Taiwan