In his first in-person press conference in more than months, Gov. Tom Wolf was asked about the highly charged issue involving a state lawmaker’s positive test for the coronavirus.
On Friday, Wolf was asked about the controversy surrounding Rep. Andrew Lewis, a Dauphin County Republican. Lewis said he tested positive May 20 and disclosed it to the public Wednesday. He said he followed his caucus’ policy by notifying House human resources, and he said he followed the Department of Health protocols.
Enraged House Democrats slammed House Republican leaders for their handling of the issue, saying they felt they were kept in the dark. They also resented learning of the news a full week after Lewis went to the House HR office. The scorching debate brought national attention to Pennsylvania’s Legislature.
When asked, Wolf didn’t wade too deeply into the controversy or offer any critical remarks about how the situation was handled.
“I don’t even know exactly what happened but I can see why members of the General Assembly would be concerned,” Wolf said.
The governor was then asked if he would immediately and publicly disclose if he tests positive for the coronavirus. “Yes,” Wolf said, simply.
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Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who also participated in the press conference, was asked about the situation. Levine cited state rules governing privacy and said she couldn’t discuss Lewis’ case specifically.
Levine was later asked if all co-workers would need to be notified about an employee’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Speaking generally, Levine said that individual’s employer wouldn’t have to notify every co-worker.
Employers will typically talk with the infected individual and reach out to other co-workers in close contact, Levine said.
“They will identify who close contacts are and they’ll ask close contacts to quarantine,” Levine said. “They don’t necessarily, I mean they can if they want to, but they do not necessarily have to … close a large business because one person tested positive.”
“Not everybody was in close contact,” Levine added. “So close contacts will be notified and then asked to quarantine, and all that is done confidentially.”
Some Democratic lawmakers, notably state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, fumed over what they viewed as the improper disclosure. A few Democratic lawmakers demanded resignations and even criminal investigations. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he understood the frustration of lawmakers but said there would be no investigation.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he wasn’t informed about Lewis’ test results. On Thursday, Turzai said he’d immediately disclose if he tested positive and asked others to do the same.
In the wake of the heated debate, state lawmakers are crafting policies on handling future cases.
House Republican spokesman Mike Straub said the chamber’s bipartisan management committee agreed to develop a shared policy that would apply to both the GOP and Democratic caucuses.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, indicated the Senate is discussing possible COVID-19-related rule changes and will be watching to see what the House does.
Lewis, 33, said he is fully recovered from his bout with the virus. He said he developed mild flu-like symptoms around May 14, the last day he was at the Capitol for a three-hour span. Lewis said he followed House protocols.
“It was a textbook case of notifying the people I needed to notify,” Lewis told PennLive Thursday. “It’s very disappointing to see that there’s any thought that somehow there was an intentional not letting them know on a partisan basis. For me, it had nothing to do with politics whatsoever.”
While the furor has subsided somewhat, some remain unsatisfied.
Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, sent a letter to Scarnati requesting Senate rules changes to better protect staff and members in that chamber. He also urged COVID-19 disclosure rules apply to state employees who frequent the Capitol.
State Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican, said on Twitter he first learned of his fellow GOP lawmaker’s diagnosis from House Democrats.
He added, “I would publicly disclose immediately if I learned I was COVID positive.”
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