Politics

In the Capitol, the Delta Variant Spreads Worry and Partisanship

WASHINGTON — Breakthrough coronavirus cases have emerged in multiple offices in Congress, including the speaker’s. The line for in-house testing snakes through a long corridor and into a visitors’ center atrium. The Capitol’s doctor has warned of the possible return of a mask mandate.

The Delta variant has reached Capitol Hill, but a common enemy has only made recriminations and anger worse between the two political parties. Republicans, caught between a political base that is often resistant to vaccination and an imperative to save the lives of their voters, point their fingers at Democrats and blame them, without evidence, for covering up the virus’s origins.

Democrats fault Republicans who have done little to push back against vaccine skeptics in their ranks, and even now are soft-pedaling their calls for people to take the shot.

“We’ve got people here who’ve refused to get vaccinated and are actually discouraging others to get vaccinated,” said Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “The Republican Party no longer lives in reality. It’s pathetic.”

For much of the vaccinated nation, the coronavirus resurgence is somewhere else. In states like Vermont, Hawaii and Massachusetts, where at least 84 percent of the adults have at one shot or two, surges in Alabama, Florida, Missouri and Arkansas are far, far away.

But the Capitol is one of the few places in America where red and blue mingle almost daily — and resentment is high.

“Congress is like a nationwide convention every single day,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who has begun wearing a mask again, though he is fully vaccinated and 76.5 percent of adults in his state of Maryland have received at least one shot. “There are people who have come from every corner, hamlet and precinct of the country. It’s a petri dish for the development of political ideas, but also plagues.”

Republicans point out that the most recent high-profile carriers of the current plague were Democrats, Texas legislators who fled Austin to stop passage of a measure restricting voting. Six of them — all of whom said they were vaccinated — then tested positive, and are suspected of infecting a senior aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The aide, also vaccinated, is mildly symptomatic.

“I think that you as the press have a responsibility to ask questions of the Democrats as well,” Representative Ronny Jackson, Republican of Texas, snapped on Thursday when he and other Republican doctors were asked how many in their conference had been vaccinated. “How many of the Democrats are willing to say whether or not they’ve been vaccinated? What about the Texas delegation from the Texas House, including the six that tested positive?”

It is clear in the Capitol that the resurgence of the coronavirus — which is once again filling intensive care units around the country — is not pulling the nation together.

“Some of my frustration comes from talking to former colleagues still working in the I.C.U.,” said Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California and a doctor. “The first year, they didn’t have much to treat patients. They were intubating and just trying to keep them alive. Now for every patient they’re putting on a ventilator, this was absolutely preventable. Every one of them is unvaccinated.”

To be fair, the Texas legislators who made a show of defiance, then brought the virus, spread fears in both parties. Representative Kim Schrier, Democrat of Washington and a pediatrician, said those six breakthrough cases were a wake-up call in the Capitol community.

On the House floor, at least among Democrats, masks are going back on. Lawmakers are sending staff members for testing. Ms. Pelosi and some senators have told aides to work from home — just weeks after many of them returned to Capitol Hill.

And as lawmakers and aides look toward this fall, when school resumes before children under 12 are expected to have access to vaccines, their worries only worsen.

“If you’re in an area with a lot of unvaccinated people and you have unvaccinated kids, I would recommend you put your masks on again,” Dr. Schrier said. “If I had children under 12, I would be taking very big precautions right now.”

It is still unclear how many Republicans in the House and Senate are vaccinated, as many of them have refused to say one way or the other. Both Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who has pushed fringe theories about the virus — have said they will not get the shot because they have already had Covid-19. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who have had the virus still be inoculated.)

Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, proudly proclaimed this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas: “Don’t come knocking on my door with your ‘Fauci ouchie.’ You leave us the hell alone.” She was referring to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become a boogeyman for the right.

Congress’s attending physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, indicated that some remained unprotected when he pleaded this week with lawmakers in a memorandum: “The Delta variant is a severe threat. I urge unvaccinated individuals to come for vaccination at any time.”

Leadership aides say the number of unvaccinated lawmakers is slowly dwindling. The No. 2 House Republican leader, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, got his first shot on Sunday, a remarkable delay considering that one House Republican, Ron Wright of Texas, and one Republican member-elect from his home state, Luke Letlow, died of Covid-19.

“It’s startling to read about members getting vaccinated in July when they could have been vaccinated in December,” Mr. Raskin grumbled.

But many Republicans will not divulge their vaccination status, even when pressed on whether they should be setting an example for their constituents.

“We believe in health privacy. The bottom line is we believe it; it doesn’t stop at the Covid door,” Representative Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland and a doctor, said Thursday. “It is every citizen’s right to choose to get a vaccine, and then to choose not to reveal whether they’ve gotten a vaccine.”

That kind of reluctance rankles Democrats. Andy Slavitt, a health policy expert who recently left the Biden White House’s pandemic response team, called out Mr. Paul by name for talking down the vaccine.

“Why are we letting these people who are not working in our best interest to damage our country?” he asked.

Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist, shrugged it off and focused on the unproven theory that the novel coronavirus was created by scientists in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, maintaining that it could have been far worse.

“Four million people have died in this pandemic with a 1 percent mortality rate. They’re experimenting with SARS viruses that have a 15 percent mortality rate,” he said. “The good news about the Delta variant is that the vaccine seems to cover it. So does natural infection.”

And the lawmakers who have been most vocal about questioning the efficacy of the vaccines, though slightly defensive, still persist. Mr. Johnson said he was only “trying to provide transparency on the part of the federal government so that my constituents have as much information to make an informed choice for themselves as to whether to get vaccinated.”

He then launched into a discourse on recent data showing continued coronavirus infections in Israel, which prominent vaccine skeptics have cited to cast doubt on the efficacy of getting inoculated. But those statistics do not tell the whole story. According to the most recent Israeli analysis, the vaccine is more than 90 percent effective against hospitalization.

Even beyond the Capitol, lawmakers’ frustration is showing. Representative Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat who was an emergency room doctor, said that he recently joked with a friend in his district who is a vaccine denier about the dire consequences of his beliefs.

“This will prove Darwinism,” Mr. Ruiz said he had told his constituent, “because those with common sense who use their intelligence will survive.”

He didn’t sound as though he was joking.

Carl Zimmer contributed reporting.

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