Positive Covid Test Brings California Senate to a Halt

The California Capitol building in Sacramento. (Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A positive coronavirus test within the California Senate brought business to a halt Wednesday morning, potentially complicating an already hectic final week of the legislative session.

Shortly before a floor session was scheduled to begin, an email was sent to Senate staffers asking them to “hold in place” due to a positive test result.

“Those who are in the Capitol already should remain in their offices. Please continue working remotely. We will be back in touch shortly,” the email said.

Lawmakers are scrambling to debate and vote on a variety of bills before an Aug. 31 deadline in what has already been a truncated session. Both the Assembly and Senate broke for recess in March during the early stages of the pandemic and they also took an extended summer recess. Two Assembly members tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this summer but have since recovered and returned to the Capitol.

From pandemic and wildfire relief, eviction protections and police reforms, the Legislature is slated to tackle the state’s most pressing issues over the next six days. Governor Gavin Newsom has been pressed by reporters in recent weeks about the possibility of a special session due to the rapidly approaching deadline, but has hinted it wasn’t yet necessary.

While business resumed as normal in the Assembly, Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, D-San Diego, said the state Senate will remain closed for the day.

“This morning, the Secretary of the Senate was informed that a member of the Senate family has tested positive for Covid-19. The person has been in the Capitol this week — as a result, we have canceled floor session for today while we conduct immediate contact tracing and inform anyone who may have been exposed,” Atkins said in a statement. “We are taking every precaution to ensure that all of the public health guidelines are being followed, including requiring masks and social distancing for everyone in the Capitol, as well as regularly cleaning our facilities.”

State Senator Brian Jones, a Republican whose district encompasses much of inland San Diego County, revealed on Twitter he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Senator Brian Jones today, upon his return to Sacramento this week for the end of session, received news that he has tested positive for Covid-19. He will be taking additional tests to recheck the results and to rule out possibility of a false-positive result,” the 52-year-old tweeted. “In the meantime, he’ll be following CDC and CDPH protocols for those receiving a positive test result.”

Jones said further requests for information should be directed to Atkins, who said the Senate “will be prepared to continue our work when we have completed public health protocols to ensure that the risk of exposure has been eliminated. The Senate will use the tools available to us to make sure that we can complete necessary work prior to Aug. 31.”

One of the tools Atkins is likely considering could be remote voting.

Since the pandemic, the Assembly has allowed its members to vote during committee and floor sessions remotely but so far the Senate is only allowing it for committee hearings. The changes were made to give lawmakers with underlying health conditions and those over the age of 65 the opportunity to participate from their respective districts.

With Senate hearings temporarily frozen, Newsom on Wednesday announced plans to double the state’s current testing capacity. 

The state currently averages over 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, but Newsom says a new deal with diagnostics company PerkinElmer will push the state’s capability to 250,000. In addition, Newsom claims the company is contractually obligated to produce results within 48 hours.

Newsom cast the deal as a “major disruption” to the testing market which has struggled to handle the state’s volume or return timely results. He encouraged other states to make similar deals, noting the Trump administration appears unwilling to step in when it comes to providing cheap, rapid coronavirus testing.

“This is exactly what the federal government should be doing. And had the federal government done this some time ago, you wouldn’t see average costs of tests at $150-$200,” Newsom said in a press conference.

Under the deal Newsom says will be made public shortly, California will receive a volume discount from PerkinElmer with per-test costs ranging from $30.78 to $47.99 depending on the number of tests conducted in a day. To account for the added volume, the state will build a new laboratory specifically for Covid-19 testing and have it running by Nov. 1.

The state’s top health official and the chairs of the Senate and Assembly health committees agreed the deal will help schools and businesses reopen by improving current, often frustrating turnaround times that often range between 7-14 days. They said the deal carries the bonus of being able to simultaneously test for the common flu.

“This is a game-changer for us,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa. “The ability to be able to test potentially 150,000 more a day and get those results back really quickly, will really impact peoples’ quality of life.”  

California has struggled during the pandemic with securing enough tests for both residents and state workers, including those responsible for investigating nursing homes. But Newsom and those responsible for negotiating the deal say the increased capacity will make the testing process more accessible and reliable going forward.

Continuing a trend seen over the last two weeks, hospitalizations and the number of counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist dropped Wednesday.

Statewide hospitalizations are down 17% and the number of people in intensive care is down 18% over the last two weeks. Newsom added the state will be releasing reopening guidelines for counties like San Francisco, San Diego and Orange which have come off the watchlist over the last 10 days.

In response to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance which states some Americans do “not necessarily need a test” even if they were in close contact to someone infected with Covid-19, Newsom said California will continue to test people without symptoms and urged other states to do the same.  

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