RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So college campuses are risky right now; so is just walking around the hallways in Congress. Lawmakers are in that Capitol building. They're working. They're in meetings. And they're doing so without a comprehensive testing program to track how the pandemic is spreading among lawmakers, among their staff. The risks were made plain when they were trying to reach a deal on a coronavirus relief bill and several lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19. But rapid testing and contact tracing is especially challenging when members of Congress are just traveling back and forth from hot spots all the time.
NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva is 72 years old and an off-and-on smoker who tested positive for COVID-19. The father with three daughters and five grandchildren is asymptomatic but nervous.
RAUL GRIJALVA: If you're not afraid of this disease, there's something fundamentally wrong. You know, you have to be a little bit scared of it.
GRISALES: Last week, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing where he sat by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who has dismissed masks. The next day, Gohmert tested positive during a White House screening, and Grijalva got his results three days later. These days, Congress can only test about a dozen or so people a week.
ASHISH JHA: It's unbelievable that, six months into a pandemic, we don't have a testing infrastructure that lets us protect members of Congress.
GRISALES: That's Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently installed a new mask mandate but doesn't want members to get special treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY PELOSI: I don't think it's a good idea for members of the Congress to say, we should have it but maybe not necessarily the people who work here at the expense of others.
GRISALES: So far, Capitol Hill has seen about 100 cases, including more than a dozen lawmakers and the death of one longtime House staffer. Months ago, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned down the Trump administration's offer of a thousand tests. Experts say that's a small drop in the bucket. Jha says the Capitol should be testing its more than 500 lawmakers and 20,000-member workforce weekly or more.
JHA: If they don't, to me that is - to be perfectly honest - that's a travesty.
GRISALES: For now, Grijalva's family has sent him herbal treatments, a new thermometer and blood oxygen sensors as he quarantines in D.C. He says he's been taking all the precautions, but he's relearning that lesson now.
GRIJALVA: This pandemic doesn't care what your party affiliation or your political ideology might be. It does not care.
GRISALES: And absent widespread testing, for now the best protection members can get is wearing masks on Capitol Hill.
Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SOLITARY BEE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.