Michigan legislature has internal COVID-19 protocols, but lacks buy-in from some GOP lawmakers

LANSING, MI – Early in the pandemic, Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, was the first state lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19 on March 26.

Three days later, Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, died at Detroit Receiving Hospital after suffering breathing problems. His death was later linked to the coronavirus.

More Capitol cases would follow: Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit in April; Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, and Rep. Beau Lafave, R-Iron Mountain, in September. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, announced he was recovering from home on Nov. 6.

And over the past week, three more Republican lawmakers tested positive: Kim LaSata of Bainbridge Township, Ann Bollin of Brighton and Scott VanSingel of Grant.

In total, COVID-19 has infected 6% of Michigan’s 149 state lawmakers in the House and Senate. That’s more than twice the overall rate of infection in Michigan, 2.6%.

The legislature hasn’t been able to craft a plan to stop the spread of COVID-19 across the state, and there’s also a split on internal enforcement of safety protocols within the Capitol building.

Read more: A lot of bluster and a stark reality: Michigan legislature has no plan to stop surge of COVID-19

Staff in the House and Senate business offices adhere to CDC guidelines on contact tracing, mask-wearing and social distancing, said Doug Simon, business director for the House Business Office. He lacks any enforcement ability when it comes to lawmakers, he said, particularly with masks.

“I can only control what I can control,” he said. “I am responsible for the contact tracing. Ultimately, whether an elected member of the House wears a mask or not is not something I can control. We have mask requirements for staff, obviously, because they are employees and we can require that of them.”

Both Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, have resisted statewide mask mandates. In a Nov. 13 interview with conservative radio host Frank Beckman of WJR Detroit, Shirkey encouraged wearing a mask if “you can’t avoid close contact,” and to not view mask wearing as “a political statement.”

Read more: Whitmer asks lawmakers to pass statewide mask mandate in Michigan

An Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation study concluded that around 100,000 lives across the country could be saved if 85% of the population were to wear masks. House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, credited the House Business Office with enforcing guidelines, but blasted Republican leadership.

“The Republican leadership? They’ve failed miserably,” she said. “I will give credit to to the House Business Office. I think they’re doing a really good job on behalf of both caucuses following the CDC guidelines for contact tracing, cleaning the facilities and limiting access… where (Chatfield) is letting them do their job, I give him credit for that. But… in terms of leading on how to be good role models for the rest of the state, (Shirkey and Chatfield) have absolutely failed.”

Political leaders can set the tone for a population’s behavior, said Josh Pasek, professor of political communication at the University of Michigan.

“Leaders lead by example,” he said. “When they fail to do so, or aren’t providing the right scaffolding for people to make the right decisions, a lot of people are going to make decisions on lesser bases.”

There are several instances of Republicans walking around in the Capitol building without a mask. For example, Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who quarantined after a COVID-19 diagnosis in August, has walked up to the podium on the Senate floor without a mask on multiple occasions in the last few months. Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Twp., was asked to leave a room to grab a mask at a press conference for a GOP-led plan to charge local health departments with enforcing health standards.

The CDC advises wearing a mask “when interacting with other people to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus.” These guidelines are used in the Senate, said Senate GOP spokeswoman Amber McCann, but that the chamber “can’t compel behavior” from senators, and they each have individual responsibility to follow guidelines.

“As staff, we are bound by workplace policies and those do include wearing masks,” she said. “Senators receive the same information, but are not treated the same as staff who are employees of the Senate. (They) are elected officials.”

Both McCann and D’Assandro said the House and Senate business offices took their leads on contract tracing from the framework set by the CDC.

The House Business Office reached out to the Ingham County Health Department in the spring for further information on how to implement contact tracing protocols, said Simon.

“They came in and we offered testing to all of our people inside our building back in September,” Simon said, referring to the time LaFave tested positive. “I’ve actually talked to the contact tracers in the health department about our processes… the other resource we utilize is Sparrow Occupational Health, who is a resource when we need people to get tested.”

There has not been consistent dialogue between the legislature, the business offices and the local health department, said Ingham County Public Health Director Linda Vail.

“There have been some very limited interactions,” Vail said. “I had a conversation and an email with Mr. Simon… when one of their members turned positive in order to get out some information about how to quarantine. It’s not like it’s been some ongoing, diligent, intense kind of (conversation).”

With the internal House and Senate contact tracing policy mirroring the CDC’s recommendations, protocols include:

  • Receiving input from state and local public health officials
  • Conducting contact tracing for close contacts, meaning any individual within six feet of a “laboratory-confirmed or probable COVID-19 patient” for a total of 15 minutes or more.
  • Prioritizing remote communication for case investigation
  • Testing all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients, and treating those contacts who test positive as confirmed cases, whether or not they are symptomatic or asymptomatic.
  • Quarantining asymptomatic contacts that test negative for 14 days from their last exposure. Symptomatic close contacts should self-isolate and be treated as a probable COVID-19 case.

The only real difference between the internal contact tracing policy, Simon said, and the CDC guidance is that the House Business Office only traces staff and representatives. As far as visitors or media at press conferences, that is outside their jurisdiction, he said.

The only public notification of lawmakers contracting the virus comes from the lawmakers themselves, Simon said.

“I have to protect people’s identities if they choose to not go public with their diagnosis,” he said. “I’m limited by that, essentially. If you’re in our position, and simply say ‘somebody has it,’ it creates a bigger circle than there needs to be. It creates too much speculation.”

After a lawmaker or staffer tests positive or deals with a close contact exposure, Simon reinforces social distancing, mask-wearing and other health guidelines. Without an ability to ensure guidelines are met, though, his hands are tied when it comes to the behavior of elected officials.

After the late March/early April infections involving Democratic representatives in Detroit, Ananich has been the only Democrat to test positive for COVID-19.

Since August, five Republican lawmakers have tested positive.

Read more from MLive:

Sen. LaSata latest Michigan lawmaker to be diagnosed with COVID-19

Here’s what changes in Michigan under new COVID-19 restrictions, in place for 3 weeks

Michigan shutters in-person dining, high school sports in response to COVID-19 case surge

Michigan high school football teams angry, disappointed with decision to shut down season

Republican legislative leaders slam Whitmer for ‘going it alone’ on new COVID-19 restrictions

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