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AP

Breakthrough COVID-19 cases rattle Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders aren’t ruling out reimposing mask requirements for the House now that the highly contagious delta variant has been detected in the Capitol complex and infection rates are spiking around the country.

“We’re going to have to decide — given the upswing in every state — whether or not prudence demands that we go back to wearing masks,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

Hoyer said any decision to go back to universal masking would follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the internal Office of the Attending Physician. His comments came after Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida announced a positive test Monday despite being fully vaccinated.

Buchanan was the first member of Congress to announce a positive test since Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Stephen F. Lynch on Jan. 29. And he’s not the only one in Washington’s power centers who has contracted the coronavirus despite being vaccinated.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday confirmed a breakthrough case of COVID-19 for a White House aide.

Psaki said there have been other breakthrough cases there, but she did not say how many. The announcement confirmed media reports that revealed the White House official and an aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tested positive.

Last week, the senior member of Pelosi’s press office, who was fully vaccinated, had interacted with a group of Texas Democrats who came to Washington to make a statement about voting rights. Fleeing a special legislative session in their home state, they made the rounds in the nation’s capital, meeting with officials from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

So far, six members of the Texas group have tested positive, NBC News reported. At least three were fully vaccinated.

The positive Pelosi aide had no contact with the speaker after the exposure, spokesman Drew Hammill said.

“Our office will continue to follow the guidance of the Office of Attending Physician closely,” he said.

Snatches of worried conversation could be heard in the hallways of the Capitol complex Tuesday. After months of practically no lines at the COVID-19 testing site in the Capitol Visitor Center, staffers and members of the media rushed to get tested this week, by some estimates causing wait times of nearly half an hour.

It’s a sign that the new variant is rattling people in the Capitol complex and creating a sense of unease. The variant was so alarming that it drove House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who had not yet been vaccinated, to get his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in his home state of Louisiana on Sunday.

“Especially with the delta variant becoming a lot more aggressive and seeing another spike, it was a good time to do it,” the Republican said in an interview with Nola.com.

Masks and face coverings, once prevalent, had been largely absent in the Capitol in recent weeks but have begun to reemerge.

Last Tuesday, hardly a mask could be seen after the Senate caucus lunches, as lawmakers and staff crushed together with members of the press who were hoping to ask a question. But this Tuesday, masks dotted the crowd of faces after the lunches, and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer was asked whether the increase in cases will change practices in the chamber.

“I’m going to be working closely with the attending physician and follow his and their guidance,” the New York Democrat said. “We’re going to listen to science, plain and simple.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made sure to emphasize at the beginning of his remarks that people should get vaccinated.

“If there’s anybody out there willing to listen, get vaccinated,” the Kentucky Republican said.

The new and highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant is quickly becoming the most dominant form of the coronavirus, accounting for 83% of the sequenced cases in the United States, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.

More than 160 million Americans are vaccinated, but in areas where vaccinations are low, cases and deaths caused by the coronavirus are beginning to tick back up again. And cases among those who are vaccinated are being reported too.

The Office of the Attending Physician sent a memo to the Capitol Hill community Tuesday reiterating the CDC guidance that vaccinated people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 are not required to wear masks inside. But vaccinated people who want to further reduce their potential risk of transmitting the coronavirus “may consider additional protective actions” like wearing a mask when in a crowded or interior location.

“The delta variant virus has been detected in Washington, D.C., and in the Capitol buildings,” the memo said. “Individuals have the personal discretion to wear a mask and future developments in the coronavirus delta variant local threat may require the resumption of mask wear for all.”

In his media availability Tuesday, Hoyer also said the spike could lead to another extension of proxy voting and virtual hearings in the House.

The latest 45-day extension of the proxy voting period expires Aug. 17, and the practice has attracted Republican ire. On Tuesday a federal three-judge panel dismissed a GOP lawsuit, saying the court did not have jurisdiction to decide whether the House proxy voting system was constitutional.

Asked how long proxy voting might stick around, Hoyer said, “That’s going to be informed not only by the new technology that’s available to us … but also by the status of the COVID-19 epidemic that we continue to suffer from.”

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(Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski, Mary Ellen McIntire and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.)

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