Pramila Jayapal Is ‘Next-Level’ Angry

The congresswoman tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering with Republicans who refused to wear masks.

Representative Pramila Jayapal speaks into a microphone
Bloomberg / Getty

It still hurts to swallow or drink. Water tastes off. She can’t sleep. She buried herself under blankets all weekend, but she couldn’t stay warm. Then came the pounding headache, the blocked sinuses. So far, she’s spent more than a week in self-isolation, toggling between British TV dramas and news reports about the rioters who wanted to assassinate her colleagues in Congress. Her husband’s symptoms are the same, but he is older than her and in a high-risk group. It’s been four days since they tested positive, nine days since the insurrection. Pramila Jayapal, the 55-year-old representative from Washington, told me that her anger is “next-level.”

Jayapal received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on January 4, and she tested negative for the coronavirus on January 5, the night before she entered the Capitol. She believes that she contracted it last Wednesday when she huddled inside a room with about 100 of her congressional colleagues, including multiple Republicans who refused to wear masks.

Jayapal wasn’t on the House floor the day of the attack; she was up in the gallery. Five weeks prior, she had undergone knee-replacement surgery. When the mob advanced and Capitol Police officers instructed those in the gallery to move toward safety, she had to use a cane for balance and ducked under railings, while the lawmakers and journalists around her crawled on their hands and knees toward the door.*

Once they got to the exit, she sat on the floor of the gallery and pushed her legs out straight into the aisle between seats; it was the only way she could sit. She heard glass breaking, then a single gunshot. Beside her, Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester began praying with her hands in the air: Peace. Peace in the land. Peace in this country. Peace in this world. Jayapal felt her knee beginning to swell. She heard pounding on the gallery doors. “We were afraid that nobody was going to come and get us,” Jayapal said.

A single officer opened the gallery door, shouting at people to leave. Outside, Jayapal and the rest of the evacuees passed five or six rioters lying spread-eagle on the floor, surrounded by more officers with their guns drawn. Representative Mikie Sherrill offered Jayapal her arm for stability as the group descended three floors to the Capitol basement.

Oh my god, this is a disaster, Jayapal thought when she arrived in the safe room. More than 100 lawmakers had packed into the blue-carpeted space, with, by her estimate, no more than three feet of distance between everyone, let alone six. They chatted quietly in groups loosely segregated by party, and half a dozen Republicans were not wearing masks. Jayapal sat down on a chair to rest her knee, and a helpful staffer brought her an ice pack. Looking around the room, it hit her: “I just knew that several of us would get COVID.”

Across the room, near a row of folding tables, Rochester, a 58-year-old member of the Congressional Black Caucus, approached a passel of maskless Republicans, including the QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. Rochester offered them blue surgical masks, but they refused. “I’m not trying to get political here,” Mullin said, before waving Rochester away. Greene crossed her arms, smiling, while the others, all men, stared at their phones or laughed at some out-of-earshot joke.

“I wasn’t mad or frustrated. I was just thinking about how many people I could get to put on a mask,” Rochester told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere this week. Jayapal, however, was livid. “Thirty-two hundred people are dying every day from COVID, and we have these people taking it like a joke,” she told me. She’d been trying hard to stay healthy, to take every precaution, not least to protect her husband, Steve. “And here we are in a lockdown after a white-nationalist, insurgent attack on the Capitol, and we’re forced into this room with them,” she said. “They’re refusing to wear masks and mocking us for it.”

Just after 4 a.m. that Thursday, Jayapal left the Capitol and went home to quarantine in a guest bedroom of her Washington, D.C., apartment. On Monday, she tested positive for the virus. Her husband got his positive result on Tuesday.** So far, a total of six lawmakers have tested positive after last week’s attack, including the 75-year-old cancer survivor Bonnie Watson Coleman. In refusing to wear masks, Republicans created “a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack,” Jayapal said in a statement announcing her diagnosis. She and other members of Congress called for fines to be levied against any lawmaker who refuses to wear a mask in the Capitol going forward—a rule that the House took up and passed on Tuesday night.

The next few days will be very important for gauging the course of Jayapal’s illness, her doctor told her. She will have to record her blood-oxygen levels three times a day. She will stay in isolation for another week, and even then, she will be able to leave the apartment only if she hasn’t experienced any symptoms for 24 hours.

Immediately after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Congress will need to pass legislation to address the COVID-19 crisis and the corresponding economic devastation, she said. But lawmakers must also find a way to address the growing threat from extremist groups, stop the spread of misinformation, and reckon with the willful ignorance and cruelty of their colleagues. “All of us are grappling with how we deal with Republican colleagues who now belong to a caucus that really is unhinged,” she said. “It’s not like these are reasonable people who are willing to look at science or be convinced of anything.” So what does that mean for America? I asked. She paused to consider her answer. “We as a country are in a really precarious position.”

* This article has been updated to clarify the instructions that lawmakers received from Capitol Police on January 6.

** This article previously misstated the date that Pramila Jayapal's husband tested positive for COVID-19.