When a Republican state representative tested positive for COVID-19 on May 20, he informed other Republican state House officials but did not share the news widely among his peers.
That decision has drawn heat from Democrats, who say they should have been told immediately that they might have been exposed.
Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican from Lebanon County, disagrees. Diamond, who came into close contact with the infected representative and self-quarantined himself for a week after getting the news, said the House Caucus followed the rules set forth by Gov. Tom Wolf, the state Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Now the Democrats are saying that’s not good enough for them,” Rep. Diamond said during a telephone interview with LebTown on Thursday afternoon. “That really disturbs me. Now we’re moving goalposts … and that’s a crying shame.”
State Rep. Andrew Lewis, a Republican lawmaker from Dauphin County, tested positive for the novel coronavirus on May 20. According to his statement, he immediately began self-isolation and worked with House officials to identify anyone with whom he may have come into close contact over the preceding days.
Diamond said he was contacted at 5:09 p.m. May 21 in an email from the human resources department of the House Republican Caucus. Diamond sits behind Lewis on the House floor, although he said he wasn’t initially told who was infected.
Earlier that same day, according to Spotlight PA, Diamond appeared before a House committee, without a mask, to make the case for his resolution to end Wolf’s emergency declaration and reopen Pennsylvania.
Diamond told LebTown he was encouraged but not required to quarantine himself for 14 days from May 14, the date of exposure. He was told to watch for symptoms such as fever and dry cough.
His self-imposed period of isolation ended at around 5 p.m. Thursday, May 28. He wasn’t tested for COVID-19, he noted.
“I called my doctor. He said if you don’t have symptoms, you don’t need to be tested,” Diamond said. However, he added, “I’m a state representative. I should be overly cautious here … and be prepared in case I do get sick.”
In his statement, Rep. Lewis said he has also completed the quarantine period and “fully recovered” from the virus.
The story has led to an explosion of reactions from people on both sides of the aisle. Many House Democrats argued that they should have been informed more quickly about the possibility of exposure.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said in a statement that most Democrats learned the news through media reports.
“While we are pleased to learn that this House member seems to have recovered, it is simply unacceptable that some House Republicans knew about this for more than a week and sat on that knowledge,” he said.
A video by Rep. Brian Sims, from Philadelphia, went viral after he lambasted the GOP for keeping Democrats in the dark.
“I never ever, ever knew that the Republican leadership of this state would put so many of us at risk for partisanship to cover up a lie,” he said in the video. “And that lie is that we’re all safe from COVID.”
Another Philadelphia Democrat, Rep. Kevin Boyle, complained that many Republican representatives have not been wearing masks in committee.
“Whoever knew this in the Republican leadership and did not inform the broader membership and staff, they need to resign immediately,” Rep. Boyle said. “This is outrageous and immoral.”
Boyle called for an investigation into the matter by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who responded Thursday saying that a criminal investigation was not warranted based on his office’s initial review.
‘Basic human decency’
Dan Sidelnick, chairman of the Lebanon County Democratic Committee, said Thursday the committee is preparing a release on the issue but declined to comment. (See the bottom of this article for the release which was distributed around noon on Friday, May 29.)
Matthew Duvall, a Democrat hoping to unseat Diamond in November, was more vocal.
“I find it odd that folks who have been critical of the governor for not being transparent or not sharing information widely would, in turn, keep something like this quiet,” he said in an email to LebTown on Thursday. “So yes, House Democrats should have known sooner, and should have found out internally rather than from news reporters.”
Duvall said it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“Anybody could contract the virus, and basic human decency would be to let your co-workers know,” he said. “As another example, when staff members at the White House tested positive that was shared widely and quickly once it was known, out of an abundance of caution, because of the interactions those people had.”
Duvall said the incident casts into doubt the Republican stance that the statewide shutdown should end.
“Not only does this event undercut the message of the Lebanon County local officials that reopening businesses is perfectly safe, it also highlights that they do not understand how to, or are not willing to, put the necessary measures in place to make such a reopening successful,” he said. “As to this specific event, the person or persons who tested positive should have shared that with their fellow legislators, at a minimum, so that those folks could have made an informed decision about what steps they themselves wanted to take.”
Republican state Rep. Frank Ryan, also from Lebanon County, said Thursday that he, too, self-quarantined from receiving the email on May 21 until Thursday.
“I followed 100 percent of the protocols,” he said. “I’ve had no symptoms whatsoever.”
Rep. Ryan noted that the Department of Health uses a contact tracing protocol to notify people who have come into contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus. The department did not contact him, he said; his notification, like Diamond’s, came from human resources.
Ryan decided to spend the requested time in isolation, he said, because “I run into too many people to take too many risks. I know people are concerned.”
He acknowledged the handling of the matter has become “an emotionally charged issue” for many, but said he believes the state House handled things correctly.
“If I tested positive for COVID-19 – which I have not – I would make a public announcement,” he said. “But the protocol is not to do that sort of thing.”
Rep. Turzai said Thursday that he would support a rule requiring self-disclosure
However, Ryan said, most state representatives were not physically present in the House at the time they could have been exposed to the virus. House officials “were abundantly careful,” he said, in deciding who should be notified about the positive test.
“We do take it seriously,” Ryan said. “When I got the notice, I stayed in isolation.”
‘Not worried at all’
Diamond has become a central figure in the controversy because of his outspoken opposition to the statewide shutdown.
In fact, he has boasted on social media about not wearing a face mask in some public settings.
On Thursday, he said this situation has not changed his mind on the subject.
“Not at all,” he said. “Andrew Lewis had a mask on, on the House floor. It didn’t change whether I was quarantined or not. It didn’t change what happened.”
Diamond said he was “not worried at all” about contracting the virus.
“There was no time I was worried I was going to wake up with a fever,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned at all that I would get sick, but I took all the precautions and followed the CDC guidelines. … I have my own opinions, but I ain’t stupid.”
During the quarantine period, Diamond said he cancelled all of his in-person appointments, checked his temperature twice daily and worked entirely from home. He also drew up a list of people he had been in contact with between the date of possible exposure and being notified of Lewis’ diagnosis, although he said that he wasn’t required to inform anyone unless he started to show symptoms.
“I’m getting a lot of criticism because I didn’t do that,” he said. “But it’s unworkable in society to do it. Everybody would end up in quarantine.”
On social media and in email tips to LebTown, some have alleged that Diamond was seen running errands around Lebanon County during the self-quarantine period. Diamond confirmed that he visited a local post office on Thursday, May 21, prior to receiving the contact notification, and had visited two local hardware stores on Saturday, May 16. Although these visits occurred after the potential exposure moment, they occurred before Diamond said he received the notification email. Diamond was not aware of any individuals who had needed to quarantine themselves due to his visits and said that doing so would not be necessary under CDC guidelines.
The CDC defines exposure incidents as durations of 15 minutes spent within six feet of a person with symptomatic COVID-19. The CDC guidelines focus on symptomatic transfer because “viral shedding is greatest at the time of symptom onset” and therefore the risk of transmission is highest during this period. However, the CDC also notes that the proportion of transmissions due to asymptomatic infection compared to symptomatic infection is unclear, and cloth masks are recommended to slow the spread. (Although some research has suggested the effectiveness of cloth masks is greatly limited compared to N95 masks, which are in very limited supply right now, public health experts and health systems across the board have recommended cloth mask wearing and hand-washing as prudent measures to reduce the risk of transmission for the public at large.) Diamond would not say whether he was wearing a mask during these visits.
Diamond noted in a followup email to LebTown that he went “above and beyond with an abundance of caution” and “even to the point of regrettably missing the opportunity to speak on my own resolution to end this shutdown,” a resolution that passed 117-85 in the state House on Thursday.
“When town gossip results in the COVID-era equivalent of a scarlet letter, things have gone too far,” said Diamond in the email. “If this is Tom Wolf’s ‘new normal,’ I want no part of it. People should go back to minding their own damned business.”
“You can quote me on that.”
During his isolation, Diamond said in the telephone interview that he did “everything remotely. And by the way, it sucks. I hate it. I’m staring at the computer screen and my phone all day long and I don’t have any human interaction. It’s horrible.”
During House sessions earlier this week, Diamond said he monitored a live feed from the House floor on his computer and kept in contact with his peers by phone. He used a proxy form – which must be signed, scanned, and sent to the Capitol – to log his votes on bills and amendments during his absence he explained.
He planned to return to the House on Friday, he said.
Diamond insisted that House Republicans handled the matter properly. And, he said Thursday, “nothing at all has changed” regarding his push to reopen the state.
“I am living proof that businesses can continue to operate even in the midst of a virus,” he said on Thursday. “I did what had to be done and, even though I hated it, I worked from home.”
However, he added, “for somebody living paycheck to paycheck, this kind of overzealous self-quarantining might be a problem for them.”
Ryan said Thursday that legislators “have to get to the bottom of what works and what doesn’t work” as they revise policy regarding the coronavirus.
Assistance should be focused “on those people most at risk – that would be senior citizens, doctors and nurses, first responders, people with preexisting conditions, and people living in dense housing situations,” he said.
“I firmly believe that we need to go back and take a look at the normal protocols for the flu, for everything that we do,” Ryan added. “When I was young, we were told go to work no matter what, even if you were sick. It was a red badge of courage to go to work when you were sick. That’s a mistake.”
He also said he would like to see “a joint, interagency task force” of representatives from the legislative, judicial and executive branches to look at better coordination in a crisis, and he said there should be measures in place “to check executive powers.”
Diamond said he believes most Pennsylvanians “know what the deal is with COVID-19” and know how to behave properly to prevent infection.
“Even if all businesses would open up with no restrictions today, people in general would be too afraid to go out,” he said.
“We’re getting to a dangerous point now where Pennsylvanian is pitted against Pennsylvanian,” Diamond added. “We’re getting close to the point where people are going to get violent with each other. I don’t want to see that happen.”
Statement from the Lebanon County Democratic Committee
Our democracy depends on mutual respect, trust, and our pursuit of untainted facts and the truth. This extraordinary time of a deadly pandemic has taken over 100,000 lives. Now should be a time of cooperation and focused efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus as we are making progress to reopen our community. Instead, Republicans in our legislature have defied the Governor’s orders to contain and control the spread of the virus. In fact, they have behaved in a way that threatens their colleague’s health. It was recently disclosed that Republican State Representative Andrew Lewis from Dauphin County tested positive for COVID-19. House Republicans, including Lebanon County’s Russ Diamond (HD- 102) were notified but kept it a secret while self-quarantining for two weeks without informing any Democratic members of the state house with whom they were in contact.
Diamond has been the leading opponent of efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. He has publicly bragged about shopping without a mask and has led the efforts to undermine the Governor’s orders.
Reprehensibly, PA Republican legislators and their leadership have denied medical science, and now appear to have intentionally failed to notify Democratic legislative committee members of their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
PA State House Democrats have called for House Speaker Mike Turzai’s resignation for his careless and reckless decision to put political games and his agenda ahead of public health and safety. The Lebanon County Democratic Committee concurs and would also call on Representative Russ Diamond to resign from office due to his total disregard for the health and safety of the citizens of Lebanon County and his disruptive behavior encouraging citizens to engage in civil disobedience endangering their health and the health of others. He has not met his responsibility to fulfill the oath of office to support, obey and defend the Constitution of Pennsylvania and its laws.
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Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
Full Disclosure: The Lebanon County Democratic Committee was previously an advertiser on LebTown. The campaign of Frank Ryan is currently an advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.
This article was updated to include a statement from the Lebanon County Democratic Committee.