Virginia state senator attended possible ‘super spreader’ event at White House

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — News that a Virginia state senator attended what some are calling a ‘super spreader’ event at the White House is prompting questions about the General Assembly’s COVID-19 protocols.

On September 26th, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) posted photos on Facebook from the Rose Garden ceremony celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ceremony was criticized for largely disregarding social distancing and mask guidelines.

Several people present at the event have since tested positive for the coronavirus, including but not limited to President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Less than a week after the ceremony, Vogel was back at the Science Museum of Virginia voting with her fellow state senators. The Senate met in-person two days that week, including Friday, October 2nd–when news broke of President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

Vogel informed Senate Clerk Susan Schaar of her attendance at the White House event the weekend after the Senate adjourned. According to Schaar, Vogel didn’t go inside the White House or come into close contact with President Trump.

Schaar said Vogel took two COVID-19 tests following the event that came back negative but she couldn’t say for sure if those results were returned before lawmakers convened.

Vogel didn’t return multiple interview requests on Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said he found out Tuesday on Twitter that a member of the body he presides over had attended the White House event.

“When you have an event like this where it was close quarters, a lot of people who were not wearing masks and multiple confirmations of coronavirus spread at that specific event, I think in that particular case it is important to share that information,” Fairfax told 8News.

This isn’t the first time there have been questions over who state lawmakers have to tell about their COVID-19 status and how quickly they should do so.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn criticized Del. Tommy Wright (R-Lunenburg) for not disclosing that he had tested positive days after the House of Delegates met in-person at VCU’s Siegel Center.

“This lack of transparency when it comes to this highly contagious disease is incredibly troubling. Every Delegate and individual present at the Siegel Center on August 18th had a right to know of Delegate Wright’s reported positive test for their safety, their family’s safety and the safety of their communities,” Filler-Corn said in a statement.

When Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) tested positive in August, an email was sent out to the entire chamber warning lawmakers to seek medical attention if they felt any symptoms.

The House and Senate have no written internal policies on disclosure. Instead, Schaar said they follow CDC guidelines and consult with the Virginia Department of Health.

Richmond Health Department Director Dr. Danny Avula said lawmakers don’t necessarily need to disclose their health status, particularly if they’re following protocols that prevent them from being within six feet of their colleagues for more than fifteen minutes.

“I think the General Assembly should be taking precautions to not fall into that close contact definition,” Dr. Avula said. “So as long as the body is following those protocols then there doesn’t need to be public communication.” 

“Our higher value there is going to be to protect the personal health information of the individual impacted,” Dr. Avula furthered.

The House of Delegates has been meeting virtually during the special session, with the exception of the first day. Senators have been meeting at the Science Museum of Virginia, each with their own socially-distanced table.

Avula said, with this in mind, there is no need for every member of the Senate to be tested before they convene in Richmond on Wednesday.

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