By inadvertently spreading the coronavirus around the U.S. Capitol for at least a week, Rand Paul has turned the world’s greatest deliberative body into the nation’s highest-profile vector for the spread of the pandemic.
The senator from Kentucky was worried enough about being exposed to the virus that he got a still-hard-to-obtain test for it. But while he was waiting for the results, he decided to keep showing up to the Senate. He went to group lunches with his Republican colleagues, took the Capitol elevators, talked with reporters, and worked out in the somehow-still-open Senate gym. Yesterday morning, he was doing laps in the pool there.
By yesterday afternoon, Paul had announced that he had tested positive. Graciously, he said that he would start self-quarantining.
Paul is exactly what we’ve been told to worry about. For all the laughing and hate-tweeting directed at spring breakers saying they don’t think the coronavirus is a big deal, they’re at worst dumb, selfish, underinformed 20-somethings. Paul is a medical doctor (he worked as an ophthalmologist before first being elected in 2012). He is a senator. He is an elected official. People look to him for leadership.
In the Senate, the average age is 62.9. There are five senators in their 80s—and there will soon be six, when Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has his birthday at the end of the month. There are mothers and fathers of young children in the chamber. There are senators who have close family members with conditions that make them especially susceptible to the virus, such as Utah’s Mitt Romney, whose wife has MS.
Then there is Paul, whose office claims that he was being extra careful by deciding to get tested (he had a procedure last year to remove a damaged part of his lung), and that he “only got tested because of his insistence.” But Paul’s attitude seems to have boiled down to some version of Too bad for you if I’m infected and I come into contact with you.
He is infected. He came into contact with a lot of people. And now, at a crucial moment in American history, when the entire country is counting on Washington’s response, Paul has single-handedly given senators reason to worry that they are risking their health by showing up to vote.
None of this explains how Paul got tested at all. People across the country are having trouble breathing and running fevers but being told that they have to wait for a test. Paul was asymptomatic, but did attend an art-museum fundraiser in Kentucky on March 7 with two people who later tested positive for COVID-19 (Paul says he never interacted with either of the people in question). Other people at the event, including the local mayor, have tested positive, and Paul seems to have decided that attending the fundraiser was enough reason to ask for a test. How he jumped the line for one is a mystery. America doesn’t have anywhere near enough tests for those who need them, despite Donald Trump saying at the beginning of the month that anyone who wanted a test could get one, and Vice President Mike Pence saying on March 10 that there would be an additional 4 million tests “before the end of this week.” That was two weeks ago today.
Importantly, Paul has no idea where or from whom he contracted the virus. He could have gotten it and then spread it at all sorts of places he hasn’t considered. Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, who was at the same museum fundraiser, announced on March 15 that he’d taken a test and the results had come back negative. Still, Yarmuth tweeted, “I plan to continue working from home and will avoid going out in order to do my part as we all work to practice safe and precautionary distancing to help defeat this pandemic.”
Other senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, preemptively self-quarantined after learning that they could have been exposed. Cruz had no symptoms either. Paul’s office argued that he got the test “out of an abundance of caution due to his extensive travel and events.” But if traveling between Kentucky and Washington is all that is required to get a test, a lot more people should be able to receive immediate testing.
They can’t, of course. There’s no question that Paul got special treatment. He got a test that others want and can’t get, and he got it despite having no symptoms—something the president has explicitly said people shouldn’t be doing. He got it as a United States senator, which means that he got it on a taxpayer-funded government health-care plan. Everyone else, including those who might be fighting for a ventilator in the coming weeks, can wait.
All last week, while he was deciding that he wanted to be tested, getting that specially obtained test, and waiting for the results, Paul was at work in the Senate. He was holding up, then voting against, then blasting in a floor speech the first major coronavirus-response bill, which includes a provision to make testing, once it becomes more readily available, free for whoever wants it.
Paul got a test that he voted against everyone else being able to get. He slowed the passage of the bill to make a principled stand against the enormous deficit spending involved. He did not mention, as he criticized young people for not taking the virus seriously while in almost the next sentence raising doubts that it is worse than the swine flu, that he was concerned enough about himself to get tested. “Modern man has become accustomed to the idea that life is relatively safe, that a long life is to be expected. Consequently, any re-eruption of diseases beyond our control paralyzes us with fear,” he said, urging people to get their worries under control. He mentioned that his parents remember the polio scares, and that they lived through those well into their 80s.
One of those parents is Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas and presidential candidate who helped mainstream a version of libertarianism that his son is clearly inspired by, though the elder Paul is a separate political figure and not formally affiliated with his son except by biology. But here’s what Ron Paul, who also began his professional life as a doctor (an obstetrician) wrote in a commentary published on March 16: “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus ‘pandemic’ could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated by those who seek to profit—financially or politically—from the ensuing panic.” The same day, Rand Paul’s chief political strategist, Doug Stafford, tweeted mockingly about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio taking a midday break from dealing with the pandemic response to go to a gym in Brooklyn: “So people can’t eat out but can go to the gym where they expel bodily fluid and touch things other people just touched. Ok.” His boss, he would later find out, was doing those things all week.
Here are some of the questions I sent Paul’s spokesman this morning:
- When did the senator decide to get tested? Why did he wait, when Congressman Yarmuth, who was at that same museum fundraiser, got tested a week earlier?
- Why did he not inform anyone in the Senate that he was concerned enough to get tested and/or self-quarantine?
- How did the senator obtain a test so quickly, when others have been waiting (including others who likewise have conditions that have them on high alert)?
- Was the test covered under his Senate health insurance? If not, how was it paid for?
The only response I received pointed me to the statements that Paul has put out over the past day, which don’t address these questions. Paul’s office released an emailed statement from him this afternoon, calling for “more testing immediately, even among those without symptoms.” He argued, “The nature of COVID-19 put me—and us all—in a Catch-22 situation. I didn’t fit the criteria for testing or quarantine. I had no symptoms and no specific encounter with a COVID-19 positive person. I had, however, traveled extensively in the U.S. and was required to continue doing so to vote in the Senate. That, together with the fact that I have a compromised lung, led me to seek testing.”
He turned his scolding toward anyone questioning how he’s behaved, holding himself up as an exemplar because he went out of his way to get tested, even though he kept it secret, and even though he got a test others can’t get.
“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a tee, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” the statement reads. “Perhaps it is too much to ask that we simply have compassion for our fellow Americans who are sick or fearful of becoming so.”
I hope the senator makes a full recovery. Many Americans who are sick or fearful of becoming so won’t get the same compassion or access to treatment that he did.