MADISON – Wisconsinites who attend or testify in public hearings in the state Capitol on legislation are unlikely to be notified if someone infected with COVID-19 was present.
During three recent hearings — on Aug. 11 and Oct. 7 — the Wisconsin State Legislature used a practice of alerting the people who sit or stand closely to lawmakers or staff who tested positive for COVID-19 and notified the Legislature’s human resources office.
And it’s unclear how often these notifications extend to members of the public who attend the hearings — legislative officials have not answered questions about how many members of the public have been alerted when they have been potentially exposed to the virus in a legislative proceeding.
Five people told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they weren’t notified after testifying in hearings on Aug. 11 and Oct. 7 where COVID-19 was potentially exposed to them, including a woman who sat behind a lawmaker who testified without a face mask and soon after tested positive.
“I found out through social media,” said Angela Harris of Milwaukee, who testified at an Aug. 11 hearing on education-related bills, and sat behind Republican Sen. Andre Jacque during his testimony.
Jacque said he felt ill earlier that week, testified without a mask that day, and days later was hospitalized with COVID-19.
During the Oct. 7 hearing, a number of people who testified had Down syndrome, a condition that increases a person’s chance of becoming hospitalized or dying of COVID-19 exponentially. One advocate said she was not notified.
Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician from Green Bay and former Democratic candidate for the state Assembly, testified without a face mask during the same hearing and received a positive COVID-19 test result on Thursday. It’s impossible to know when Lyerly became infected.
“Hard to know whether I picked it up there, but I don’t have any other known exposures, only a 15 year old son with a cough and a negative COVID test,” she said. Lyerly said legislative officials did not contact her about the possible exposure.
Assembly officials say they notify “close contacts” of those who report positive COVID-19 tests, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as someone who was within six feet of a person who had COVID-19 for 15 minutes or longer.
“The Centers for Disease Control define a COVID exposure as close contact – 6 feet or less – for 15 minutes over a 24 hour period. The Legislative Human Resources follows these guidelines when conducting contact tracing suggested by CDC. In short, we follow the science,” said Angela Joyce, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
That means if a lawmaker who attends a committee hearing that lasts hours and later tests positive for COVID-19, only those who were determined to be in very close proximity to the lawmaker will be told about the possible exposure.
For example, Democratic Rep. Sara Rodriguez of Brookfield was notified she had been potentially been exposed during the Oct. 7 Assembly health committee hearing but Rep. Lisa Subeck, who was sitting three seats away from her, was not.
Committee chairman Rep. Joe Sanfelippo also wasn’t notified and said he didn’t learn of the potential exposure until Subeck told him about it.
In an interview, Sanfelippo said he believes the Legislature’s policy of contacting only close contacts is appropriate.
“I think it’s appropriate to follow whatever the CDC guidelines are,” he said. “I leave that up to HR — they’re taking their direction from the CDC and we put our trust in the CDC. They are the ones making the guidelines.”
Rodriguez, who is a registered nurse and once worked as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC, said the Legislature’s notifications to close contacts is a good first step but wants more transparency for the public.
“It’s concerning to me that we are not being more transparent in committees where we are requiring people to testify in person,” she said. Rodriguez said because those who testify must submit their names to committee leaders, the Legislature could at least notify those people when there is an exposure.
“I think that is the absolute minimum we should be doing,” she said.
Notification steps described as minimal
Patrick Remington, former epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s preventive medicine residency program, said contacting close contacts as defined by the CDC is the minimum action that could be taken but notifying broadly would ensure everyone who could have been exposed are aware of the possible risk and can change their plans or get tested if they wish.
“In the spirit of transparency is that anytime there’s been an exposure to public space everybody should be informed of that including people who have a low risk exposure — to me that’s good public health practice,” Remington said.
Remington said notification of everyone in a hearing room would be optimal because of the possibility of COVID-19 being spread through the air.
“We know there have been outbreaks of people who have not been in close contact — that’s evidence of airborne transmission,” Remington said. “We know it’s possible … it’s not the primary mode of transmission but it is possible.”
Good government experts and advocates for government transparency say the Legislature’s practices are lacking.
“If a case comes to light after a legislative hearing, session or other legislative function, the legislature has a moral obligation to expend all reasonable efforts to seek out and notify anyone who might have been exposed to COVID as a result of attending the legislative activity,” said David Griesing, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Illinois-based Better Government Association.
“We expect employers to do this; we expect our friends and family to do this. The legislature is no different, and in fact its obligation is higher because its sole function is to serve the public.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said government officials should “demonstrate maximum transparency” when it comes to public business and notify everyone in a committee hearing where COVID-19 was possibly present.
“It really makes me mad that the leg would embrace secrecy over the protection of the public’s health,” he said. “Who the f*** do these people think they work for?”