Health & Science

Unsanitized: The Capitol Riot Was an Infection Point

Also, the one tax trick that saved local budgets.

Unsanitized: The Capitol Riot Was an Infection Point

First Response

We have had the bad timing of a number of mass-gathering events over the past three and a half months, which have coincided with ever-climbing numbers of coronavirus cases. Most of these were fixed into our annual schedules. The election (including early voting) packed millions of Americans into gyms and schools. Then Thanksgiving brought small groups of families and friends together. Christmas and New Year’s did the same. This winter was always going to be bad but the calendar is making it worse.

Now we have another event that was unplanned. Congress has always been a super-spreader location waiting to happen, but the attack on the Capitol on January 6 made that possibility a probability. Thousands of maskless rioters (you’d think the far right will invest in masks now that their unmasked bretheren are all getting rounded up) mingled in extremely tight quarters with the Capitol Police. They breathed on one another and yelled near one another, and if they had COVID, gave it to one another. And then they got on planes or into their cars and drove off to every corner of the country. The Biogen conference in late February, which only had a few hundred people at it, was linked to 300,000 cases worldwide. Do the math on a super-spreader event with at least 10 times as many people in attendance.

We are already seeing the consequences of that event from the most controlled part of it: the rooms where members of Congress sheltered in place during the riot. Two Democrats have announced that they have contracted the virus, and they point the finger at their Republican colleagues, who refused to wear masks in close quarters.

First, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), a 75 year-old cancer survivor, announced her diagnosis from a rapid antigen test. Those tests sometimes produce false positives, but Coleman was experiencing mild symptoms and decided to head to the hospital for a monoclonal antibody treatment. Then, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) announced that she too tested positive. It’s unclear whether or not she has symptoms.

UPDATE: A third Congressmember, Brad Schneider (D-IL), has tested positive. He was in that same room.

Both Coleman and Jayapal described the large hearing room where they sought refuge from the Capitol Riot for several hours. There were over 100 members of Congress and support staff inside, and not only did Republicans decline to wear masks, they mocked staff who tried to hand them out. There’s video of this.

Many of those refusing to wear masks were the same Republicans who objected to the electoral vote count, including Andy Biggs (R-AZ), the Freedom Caucus chair who helped plan the “Rally to Save America” that was the prelude to the riot. So he found numerous exciting ways to endanger members of Congress that day.

I should reiterate that these rooms should have been the least dangerous part of the Capitol, compared to the cheek-by-jowl areas of the riot. Only Republican members who callously refused to take into account the well-being of their colleagues turned these rooms into petri dishes. The far more dangerous outbreak was happening outside, and I imagine we’ll see that reflected in the overall numbers.

There was already an outbreak within Congress before the Capitol Riot; Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-KS) received his positive test on Wednesday night. These Congressmembers often live together in Washington; that’s how Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) said he got the virus (he tested positive on Sunday). We know that Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) went on the House floor to cast a vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker just six days after testing positive. And that was before they all had to shelter in close quarters. The Office of the Attending Physician encouraged the entire Congress and staff to get tested after the attack on the Capitol.

Jayapal was vaccinated, although only two days before the riot; the vaccine doesn’t work that quickly. Watson Coleman also received the vaccine, though it’s not clear when. I’m more interested in whether this ends the question of whether you can transmit the virus while vaccinated. At least some members received the vaccine weeks ago, enough time for it to kick in. Yet the virus still rolled through that hearing room, apparently.

This was also a little natural experiment in the importance of masking, which is at least supposed to be mandatory in the Capitol. “This is not a joke,” Jayapal said in a statement. “Our lives and our livelihoods are at risk, and anyone who refuses to wear a mask should be fully held accountable for endangering our lives because of their selfish idiocy.”

Bullet, Dodged

Texas announced a smaller deficit than projected for the year, with just $1 billion to fill in a $112 billion budget. The revenue report reveals the shifts in purchasing patterns from the pandemic. Drops in hotel and alcohol taxes (people may be drinking at home, but when you shut down the bars things do tend to plummet) were offset by sales taxes on home furnishings and materials. But the real saving grace for Texas has been online sales taxes, a new revenue source that grew out of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling. States could previously only collect taxes from online retailers with a physical presence there. The ruling allowed for all online sales to be taxed in the same fashion as sales from a brick-and-mortar store.

It occurs to me that the Wayfair ruling has been far more critical than anyone would have realized. Online sales boomed in the pandemic. If Wayfair was just slightly delayed, states would have sacrificed many billions in sales tax revenue, as e-commerce retailers resisted paying the tax. We got enormously lucky.

Of course, Texas has no income tax, and other states and cities with different revenue mixes have not been as fortunate. That’s why municipal borrowing was at a ten-year high in 2020; localities need the money. (The associated rewards for muni bankers might explain why the Fed didn’t jump to help out cities and states.) Just because the outlook is better for cities and states doesn’t mean it’s great; the shortfall is around $224 billion according to Moody’s. It remains a source of austerity and something Congress needs to address.

Number of Vaccine Doses Given

9.27 million, up from 8.02 million when checked on Monday. Some of this is because of lags in the data, but that’s above the 1 million/day pace, and we’re up to 36 percent of all shots distributed being administered. Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina are still lagging, but there’s been a lot of improvement nationwide.

Today I Learned

  • I was on the Majority Report with Sam Seder yesterday, talking mostly about the Capitol Riot. Watch here. (Majority Report)
  • The Trump administration is moving toward a simpler metric for vaccination, starting with everyone age 65 or over. (CNBC)
  • Governors are being blamed for the slow initial rollout and the spoilage of vaccine. (Politico)
  • Pfizer has found the capacity for another 500 million doses. (Financial Times)
  • Greenhouse gas emissions fell significantly in 2020. We’re just a few shelter-in-place catastrophes from saving the planet, I guess. (New York Times)
  • The Fed should get criticism for soaring inequality, and it’s why economic rescues shouldn’t rely on them. (Axios)
  • Furnished short-term housing becoming a trend for remote worker travel back to the office. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Gorillas get coronavirus. (Bloomberg)

David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.