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As the impeachment trial begins in the Senate on Tuesday, the Capitol complex remains on high alert — protected by National Guard troops and walled-off from the public by barbed wire and perimeter fencing after last month’s violence.
Despite those precautions, though, one security threat remains: COVID-19. Most senators have received at least one shot of the vaccine, including all of the Democratic caucus, but that does not eliminate risk.
During former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, every member of the Senate was required to remain seated at his or her desk in the chamber for the duration of each day’s proceedings. This time, senators will be allowed to spread out and use the public galleries that have been closed to tours for months.
Still, prolonged indoor contact could pose a serious risk of spreading the virus, even with masks and social distancing.
“This many people in an enclosed space, talking and deliberating, really is challenging for infection prevention efforts,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at George Mason University. “I worry that with so many people there will be several who aren’t great at wearing their masks, which will put others at risk.”
There are other reasons to be concerned: Senators have not been allowed to vote by proxy, as House members have, meaning that most of them regularly commute long distances to and from Washington, potentially increasing their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. And many lawmakers are at an increased risk of developing a severe case of the virus because of their age — there are 26 members in their 70s and 80s.
One, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, 87, tested positive for the coronavirus in the fall — though he said he experienced no symptoms. According to NPR’s congressional COVID-19 tracker, Grassley is one of at least eight senators who have previously tested positive.
On Monday, Rep. Ron Wright, a Texas Republican, became the first congressman to die following a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Will the vaccine help?
Unlike most Americans, most U.S. senators have access to vaccines and most have taken advantage of that by getting shots offered by the Office of Attending Physician. According to an NPR analysis, at least 72 senators have received one or more doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
That includes every member of the Democratic caucus.
Twenty-two Republican senators have indicated, in statements to NPR or past public remarks, that they have received a vaccine. Two others, Steve Daines of Montana and Rob Portman of Ohio, participated in vaccine research trials.
Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida have yet to receive a shot, but plan to be vaccinated in the future. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch both declined to disclose their vaccination status, citing health privacy reasons.
Many members of the caucus did not answer multiple inquiries from NPR.
According to Popescu, the infectious disease expert, while the vaccines will provide some degree of protection to those who have received them, all the standard prevention strategies are still important to prevent transmission to others.
It’s also important to remember that no vaccine is 100% effective, Popescu says, “meaning that there is still a potential that some may be vulnerable to infection and severe disease.”
And some senators remain worried. A spokesperson for Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, told NPR that the senator is “clearly” concerned about the possibility of widespread infection due to the trial. King has been commuting between his home state of Maine and Washington, D.C., by car for the last 11 months to avoid air travel.
Already, the insurrection at the Capitol has been linked to cases of COVID-19 among lawmakers. Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Brad Schneider and Bonnie Watson Coleman all tested positive after being confined with some of their colleagues during the riot.
In a pointed Twitter post after testing positive, Jayapal blamed her Republican colleagues: “Only hours after Trump incited a deadly assault on our Capitol, many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask.”