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Positive results for COVID on rapid tests at State House complex; multiple Maryland senators miss floor session

Positive results from “several” rapid coronavirus tests at the State House complex kept a number of senators off the chamber floor Tuesday morning and in a precautionary quarantine as lawmakers awaited the results of more accurate tests.

Senate President Bill Ferguson announced the positive results to the Senate chamber and said public health officials have begun extensive contact tracing of anyone potentially exposed to the virus.

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Six of the Senate’s 47 members missed the chamber’s 11 a.m. floor session, although it wasn’t clear how many of those missing received positive results, how many were quarantining as a precaution because they were a close contact of a potential case or whether any missed the session for other reasons.

However, two of them, Sen. Shelly Hettleman and Sen. Susan Lee, told The Baltimore Sun that they were asked to quarantine as a precaution because they’d potentially been in contact with someone who tested positive Tuesday on a rapid test.

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Lee said they weren’t told who tested positive, but she was happy to take additional precautions.

“I’d rather be safe. You have to take that extra step to be careful, that’s good,” said Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat. “You don’t want to harm any other people around.”

Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she’s received both doses of the vaccine, but health officials instructed her to quarantine nonetheless after the possible exposure because it hadn’t been 14 days since her second shot.

Ferguson’s chief of staff, Jake Weissmann, declined to say how many rapid tests came back positive or whether those testing positive were senators or staffers “out of respect for privacy.”

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The rapid tests are a valuable tool because of the speed of the results, but are less accurate than traditional polymerase chain reaction tests. Ferguson said he’d been in touch with the Anne Arundel County Health Department and expected to receive the PCR results Tuesday night.

Maryland senators are required to take rapid tests for coronavirus at least twice a week under the chamber’s protocols, which are aimed at limiting the risk of an outbreak during the legislative session in Annapolis. Other measures include plexiglass shields that surround senators’ desks in the chamber, a 2-hour time limit on floor sessions and conducting many committee meetings virtually.

There is no similar testing requirement for the House, although many members also submit regularly to tests. Over the past two months, a few members of the House of Delegates have gone into precautionary quarantines, but so far no delegates have tested positive on a PCR test, said Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff for House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.

The legislature offered vaccines to members, who qualify under a “continuity of government” provision, in a private clinic at the Miller Senate Office Building. It’s not known how many received the shots.

The Senate moved forward Tuesday with its business, Ferguson said, but “we will make adjustments immediately and accordingly” if further tests confirm any infections among senators or staff members at the General Assembly.

“This is what we planned for. From the very outset, this was about risk mitigation,” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, told his fellow senators. “All of the plans and operations that we put together were built around the possibility, and the challenges of trying to legislate in the midst of a pandemic, and so we will continue to err on the side of health and caution.”

He said he believed the Senate’s operations will be able to continue in a situation with the least risk to those involved and pledged to “update everyone as soon as we have additional information.”

The legislature is nearing the midpoint of its 90-day session. Last year, the General Assembly had to cut its session short because of the threat from then-emerging pandemic.

Ferguson noted that the rapid tests used at the State House are about 80% accurate for positives but are only designed to be used as a screening indicator.

“The good news is that the reliability challenge is on the false positive side, not the false negative,” Ferguson said.

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