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‘We dodged a bullet’: Maryland Senate back in session after coronavirus test scare

Rapid coronavirus test results at the Maryland Senate that prompted precautionary quarantines apparently turned out to be a false alarm. More reliable lab tests came back negative and the chamber gaveled in Wednesday morning with nearly every senator back in place.

“We dodged a bullet, fortunately,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told his colleagues.

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Although “several” COVID-19 rapid tests came back positive Tuesday morning, Ferguson said subsequent molecular tests — which take longer to process but are more accurate — came back negative. The Senate requires members to be tested at least twice a week.

Sen. Sarah Elfreth was among those receiving what turned out to be a false positive on her rapid test. Elfreth was back Wednesday on the Senate floor to handle several bills after receiving negative results around 2 a.m. from her follow-up polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) test.

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Elfreth said she immediately left the Senate on Tuesday after getting the initial positive result, as did every member of her staff, even though staffers’ rapid test results were negative.

“The good news, and the magic of Zoom, is that I was able to watch the Senate floor and participate in committee hearings and voting from home,” said Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

“The Senate’s thorough system is working and we are fortunate to have dedicated health professionals leading our testing. It was obviously an anxious day — and I’m grateful for everyone who reached out and checked in.”

Sen. Shelly Hettleman posted a video Wednesday on Instagram saying she was glad to end her precautionary quarantine and get back to work at the State House complex. The Baltimore County Democrat said she received a negative result Tuesday morning from her rapid test, but shortly thereafter was notified that she had been exposed to a person who had a positive rapid test. Hettleman retreated to her hotel room in Annapolis and worked via video.

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About 2 a.m. Wednesday, she said she was notified that PCR testing showed there had been false positives among Tuesday’s rapid tests.

”What happened was actually a really good thing, in terms of screening people and making sure all of our safety protocols were in place,” she said in the video.

It’s unclear how many other senators or staffers also received false positive results Tuesday. Ferguson told the Senate he wouldn’t publicly share information about COVID-19 results, calling those details private health records.

Ferguson pledged to continue erring on the side of caution with rapid tests and other COVID-19 protocols, despite some grumblings Tuesday about the limited reliability of rapid tests.

“We are going to continue to default toward protecting health and safety,” Ferguson said Wednesday. “This work that we do in this body is unbelievably important, but it is not worth lives.”

Ferguson had said the Senate would shift to remote voting — with senators divided into groups and dispatched to committee hearing rooms — if tests confirmed any COVID infections. Instead, members were back on the Senate floor on Wednesday, with Ferguson saying: ”Those who are absent are wholly unrelated to any testing issues.“

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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