Democratic Lawmakers in West Virginia Speak Out After COVID-19 Infection
CHARLESTON — Democratic leaders of the West Virginia Legislature expressed their frustrations Monday after the revelation that a Republican committee chairman and member of the House of Delegates has COVID-19.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, held a press conference Monday morning at the Capitol Building in Charleston where they were joined by Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a doctor.
“The bottom line here is this: We are all in this together, Democrats and Republicans,” Skaff said. “We need to be respectful of each other.”
“There comes a time when things need to get real,” Baldwin said. “Instead of acting selfishly, we need to act with one another in mind. You’ve got to treat each other like we want to be treated.”
The House of Delegates confirmed Sunday that House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.
“We have a committee chairman who has now tested positive for the coronavirus,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, in a video statement Monday morning. “We knew that could be a possibility heading into this regular session and we’ve taken steps all along to comply with CDC guidelines and keep our members and our staff and our guests as physically separate and socially distant as we possibly can.”
“(Steele) is undergoing a quarantine in line with timing set forth by his physician,” said House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, in a statement released Sunday afternoon. “We have attempted to notify anyone who had the potential of high-risk exposure to this member, which would have meant close contact for more than 15 minutes, and we also want everyone with the House of Delegates to be aware of this positive case.”
Steele chaired a meeting Thursday of the 25-member House Government Organization Committee and chaired a virtual public hearing that same day for House Bill 2174, the West Virginia Monument and Memorial Protection Act. Steele was also present Friday, including speaking in favor of HB 2174 in a floor speech.
Both Skaff and Baldwin offered their prayers to Steele and his family.
Summers said that testing options were available starting Monday, including drive-thru testing. Contact tracing has begun for any lawmakers and staff who had close contact with Steele.
According to Skaff and Baldwin, about 86 out of 100 House members have been vaccinated and 26 out of 34 senators have accepted shots. But many legislative staff members, including per diem staff, either are not vaccinated or just now receiving vaccines.
The Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau of Public Health told lawmakers that there was no need to potentially postpone the remainder of session at this time as long as Steele hadn’t spread COVID-19 to other unvaccinated lawmakers and staff.
On the House side, Skaff is calling for Hanshaw to enforce COVID-19 rules approved by the body requiring the wearing of masks on the floor. The House set aside two House galleries: one for members who wished to be more socially distant, and one for members who didn’t want to abide by the mask rule on the House floor. Neither gallery has been used by members, while some delegates on the floor wear see-through mesh masks.
Both lawmakers called on Capitol Police to enforce mask wearing in common areas, such as hallways.
“The anti-mask, anti-vax mentality is alive and well here in West Virginia, and that saddens me,” Stollings said.
“We still need to wear our masks. We need to follow our CDC guidelines, and we need to care about each other. We’re West Virginia, folks. We don’t want to lose another West Virginian. We don’t want a third spike.”