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Dem lawmakers speak out after Republican delegate COVID-19 infection

Del. Brandon Steele, without a mask, speaks to the House on Friday. The House of Delegates confirmed he has the COVID-19 virus.

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 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.

“First and foremost, our heart and our prayers go out for our colleague…we don’t wish that on anybody’s family,” Skaff said.

“Certainly at the top of our list, we’re praying for Delegate Steele and his family, and praying that all is well with them in their health,” Baldwin said.

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 said only 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.

There are 19 days left in the 60-day legislative session ending on Saturday, April 10. 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.

“We’ll continue to operate in as close to our normal schedule as we can, but we’ll do so in a way that protects everyone’s health and safety,” Hanshaw said.

On the House side, Skaff is calling for House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, 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.

“We are calling on and asking the Speaker this morning to abide, stand up, and stand by the rules that we adopted on day one of this session, which was a mandatory mask order,” Skaff said. “People are still not following the mask order. Elected officials are not taking it seriously on the House floor…This is a serious issue. You can’t take it for granted.”

Baldwin called on all lawmakers to take part in COVID-19 testing this week and as soon as possible to ensure that the virus was not spreading beyond Steele.

“We actually have a rule about this in the Senate,” Baldwin said. “If you have a close contact or you have any reason to suspect that you had close contact or have symptoms, you are to report that to the presiding officer, so that if there is a situation, we can get to the bottom of it immediately and not have that spread any further. That’s got to happen in this case.”

Both lawmakers called on Capitol Police to enforce mask wearing in common areas, such as hallways. Stollings, who called out several senators earlier in the session for not wearing masks, said that it was disrespectful to the 2,612 West Virginians who have died due to COVID-19.

“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.”

“I know we all want what’s best for West Virginia, and that means that we all as individuals need to look out for our neighbors,” Baldwin said. “If that means doing something inconvenient, like wearing a mask, we need to do it. We need to do it here in the Capitol. We need to do it all across the state.”

“We need to take this thing seriously,” Skaff said. “When one of our members is affected, it affects all of us and who knows what the outcome is going to be. We hope that nobody else gets COVID. But if so, we’ll need to take those measures and look at this case seriously on a day-by-day basis and pray that nobody else gets it.”

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