West Virginia Dems Call For Tighter COVID Protocols At Capitol After Lawmaker Tests Positive
Top Democrats at West Virginia’s statehouse are calling on the Republican majority to tighten safety protocols after Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, tested positive over the weekend for the coronavirus.
Steele’s positive test marks the first and only case of the coronavirus since the legislative session began Feb. 10. Steele, who said Sunday he was in good shape but is quarantining at home, acknowledged Sunday that he opted not to receive a vaccine from the coronavirus, citing medical issues.
At least two other lawmakers — Del. Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam, and Sen. Patrick Martin, R-Lewis — are voluntarily under quarantine following Steele’s positive test result. The House also is making tests available on the Capitol grounds.
At a Monday morning news conference, House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said Steele’s diagnosis should serve as a warning to West Virginians and those working at the Capitol during the session.
“COVID is still out there. COVID is real, this pandemic is, is still going on. And it affects each and every one of us,” Skaff said. “And we can't let our guards down.”
Ahead of the beginning of the session, the House of Delegates passed a rule that requires masks while on the floor or during committee meetings. Exceptions can be made for delegates who are eating or drinking at their desks or while speaking on the floor.
Aside from his work as a lawmaker, Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, works as a physician. He said sentiments downplaying the pandemic continue to affect the state and its residents.
“The anti-mask and the anti-[vaccine] mentality is alive and well here in West Virginia. That saddens me — 2,606 West Virginians have died due to COVID,” Stollings said. “Some of those were my patients. Some of those were my best friends. This is serious.”
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, commended Republican leaders like Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, for moving quickly in responding to the confirmation of a case at the Capitol.
“I think they stepped up to the plate. They are concerned about the situation here,” Baldwin said. “But as Minority Leader Skaff and Sen. Stollings said, there comes a time when things need to get real. And we are at the time when things need to get real.”
Skaff said he understands that 86 of 100 House members chose to be vaccinated, but said he was unaware about the number of staff — both full time and per diem — who had gotten the shot. Baldwin said roughly 25 or 26 of 34 senators have been fully vaccinated.
Baldwin also made mention of a letter that went out from Blair and Hanshaw stating that legislators are expected to wear a mask at all times or be subject to removal by the Sergeant at Arms.
“We're saying it's time to enforce that. Plain and simple,” Baldwin said.
Given the unknowns at play, Skaff said he believes the session should shut down if additional lawmakers test positive.
“If you see a second and third case start popping up here at the Capitol, we should stop immediately and quarantine — everybody go away for at least two weeks,” Skaff said.
Lawmakers absent in the Senate due to coronavirus safety protocols are allowed to vote by proxy through a designee. A spokesperson for the House says the body has adopted no such rule to allow for proxy voting and is not planning to make any rule changes before the end of the session.