Virus cases among lawmakers stir State House concerns

Virus cases among lawmakers stir State House concerns

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — An Alabama lawmaker was in a meeting in the State House last week when he found out he had COVID-19, the latest of several legislators to test positive for the virus. 

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said he’d gotten tested Oct. 14 because he felt ill, but was told he may have the flu and was given a strep test as well as a COVID-19 test. He said his medical care provider said he’d get a call at 8 a.m. Oct. 15 if he was positive for COVID-19.

Gudger had a meeting of a Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development sub-committee the morning of Oct. 15 in the State House that he said he didn’t feel he could miss because it involved an economic development opportunity in his area. He waited in his truck outside the State House until after 8 a.m., he said. When he didn’t get a call, he masked up and went inside.

“I wouldn’t have been in the State House except for a meeting that we’ve been working on for months,” Gudger, whose district includes most of Lawrence County, said. “And it came to a head, where I was going to be one of the key persons speaking at this particular meeting.”

The phone call alerting him to his positive test came at 8:50 and he said he left the State House immediately. He went home and has quarantined since.

“I stayed six feet away from everyone and was masked up the entire time,” he said.

Gudger is one of at least five senators to test positive for COVID-19, some of them recently. Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, contracted the virus early in the pandemic and later donated his plasma to help with antibody treatments. Sen. Randy Price, R-Opelika, was hospitalized with COVID-19 this summer and has had an extensive recovery period. Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, told Alabama Daily News he had the virus and beat it after convalescing at home and Sen. Jim McClendon is currently undergoing treatment for COVID-19, telling ADN he expects to be fully recovered by Election Day.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said he tested positive that day after learning someone in his Sunday school class had the virus.

Gudger said he’s been achy and had chills, but his breathing hasn’t been effected. 

Pat Harris, the Secretary of the Senate, said two Senate staffers who’d had contact with Gudger last week were immediately sent home.

“We had the cleaning people come in and spray and hard clean his office and every other office that he had been in,” Harris said.

Gudger said his mother is currently hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and had double pneumonia. But Gudger said he hadn’t seen her two weeks prior to his diagnosis. He doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. Gudger said he’s been careful in recent weeks, social distancing and wearing a mask. 

“We’ve been doing that and I still got it,” Gudger said. “If I can get it being as careful as I have been, I think anyone can get it.”

Alabama’s COVID-19 case numbers have been slowly rising in the past few weeks after experiencing a decrease in September. The rate of positive tests has also been increasing with the ADPH reporting a 8.1% positive rate for the previous week compared to 7.1% in late September.

On Wednesday, 863 Alabamians were hospitalized due to COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported. That’s up about 100 people from a month ago. Hospitalizations hit a high of more than 1,600 in early August. Nearly 175,000 people in Alabama have contracted the virus since the pandemic began and at least 2,805 have died.

Prepping for session

Harris said the Legislature is working with University of Alabama Birmingham to institute its GuideSafe Exposure Notification application, a testing and monitoring platform being used at some college campuses.

“That will apply to the staff members up here,” Harris said. “We’re requesting that the members — both House and Senate — do that too.” 

Harris said the Legislature is also getting equipment to take temperatures and scan for other COVID-19 symptoms of anyone entering the State House. 

Harris said preparations are being made for the legislative session that starts Feb. 3, but it will look different than previous sessions.

“At this point, based on the technologies that we are working with now, we would allow a limited number of people in the building,” Harris said. “(But) we’re not going to allow people to be standing up and down the hallways anymore. Some of the old habits will have to change, just because of where we are, but we will open the building back up to the public.”

Harris said video equipment has been added to more committee rooms so that people can watch legislative action remotely.

“We’re trying to be very proactive,” Harris said.

Gudger said that the State House is the people’s house and having to limit access, especially to people trying to get legislation passed, is a hardship. 

“But because of the safety concerns — I’m living proof that anyone can get it, there’s other legislators obviously there have had it — we want the staff, the administrators, all legislators to be as safe as possible.

“No one wants to go through this,” Gudger said about his experience.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kay Ivey has not ruled out a special session yet this year to deal with a variety of issues, including expiring economic development incentives and various other unfinished business from the pandemic-shortened 2020 session.

A spokesman for Ivey told Alabama Daily News that the continued presence of a pandemic “only adds to the factors that must be considered” when calling a special session, which would be extraordinary in the first place.

Leah Garner, communications director for Ivey, said even looking toward the regular session in February, the governor would work to make sure the legislative leadership to make sure the State House is safe for lawmakers and the public.

“As long as COVID-19 is present, we are all going to have to work through the challenges that come with this disease such as wearing masks, social distancing and adhering to other health protocols,” Garner said.

Asked about the prospects of a special session, McClendon, who is still undergoing treatment, said it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Take that kind of risk over an incentive package? I don’t think so,” McClendon said. “I’m more than willing to sacrifice on behalf of my state, but I’m not willing to die.”