A Republican member of the Ohio House of Representatives who contracted COVID-19 skirted public health guidance, potentially exposing fellow lawmakers and staff to the new coronavirus that causes the disease.
Democratic members and staff, meanwhile, say they were never informed of Rep. Stephen Hambley’s positive diagnosis, despite his appearances at floor sessions and committee hearings after testing positive.
At least four lawmakers (two Democrats and two Republicans) who attended a Dec. 2 House Finance Committee hearing alongside Hambley have since contracted COVID-19. The definitive source of their infections is not known.
Hambley received positive results from two tests taken on Nov. 22 and Nov. 28, he said in an interview Wednesday.
Nine Democratic lawmakers in total are currently either sick or awaiting test results, according to a Democratic spokeswoman. A House Republican spokeswoman did not answer questions about other cases among Republicans.
On Nov. 17, Hambley says he spent about 90 minutes in close contact with an aide. That aide received a positive COVID-19 test result Nov. 19, Hambley said.
Hambley publicly announced word of the aide’s test results to the House Civil Justice Committee, which he runs, that day.
“Before we start, I do need to announce that one of our staff members was diagnosed this morning with covid,” he said. “I’m asking all members and staff to please take the abundant amount of caution — masking, distance, sanitation, so forth. The administration as well as the leadership has been informed of this and we’re following the necessary safety protocols.”
However, the committee continued its work regardless of CDC guidelines recommending those exposed to the virus to isolate from others.
Sometime after the announcement, Hambley left the room to attend a House State and Local Government Committee hearing, which was set to field testimony and vote on Senate Bill 311, which restricts the ability of the Ohio Department of Health to issue quarantine and isolation orders related to the pandemic.
Committee footage shows a masked Hambley sitting a short distance from Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for ODH. Vanderhoff attended to testify against the bill, making the case that the legislation would hinder ODH’s ability to respond to COVID-19 and keep Ohio healthy.
Hambley can be seen intermittently for about 45 minutes before voting for the bill, later vetoed by Gov. Mike DeWine. An ODH spokeswoman said Vanderhoff was masked the entire time and consistently far more than 6 feet from the representative. He is also now well outside his quarantine period and did not show any symptoms.
According to CDC guidance, if you have been exposed to the coronavirus, you should quarantine for 10 days, or seven days if you test negative. People can spread the virus up to 72 hours before exhibiting symptoms.
In an interview, Hambley said he began to experience flu-like symptoms Nov. 21. He was tested the next day and later learned he indeed contracted COVID-19.
Hambley said he informed the office of House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and House administrative staff. Democrats, however, say they were never warned of Hambley’s situation and have expressed outrage regarding the absence of contact tracing or information sharing as cases emerge.
“It’s indefensible that he would show up with COVID,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, in a statement.
Many House Republicans refuse to wear masks, which peer–reviewed scientific research suggests reduces the risk of spreading the new coronavirus. House Republicans have repeatedly voted down efforts from Democrats to mandate mask wearing among members and staff.
Taylor Jach, a Cupp spokeswoman, did not respond to written inquiries including whether Democrats were warned of the positive cases, whether anyone is conducting any contact tracing, and others.
“I don’t know what the policy is, all I can say is they handle it within the staffs,” Hambley said.
Hambley was tested again Nov. 28 and the results came back positive. Regardless, he attended the House Finance meeting the morning of Dec. 2. He has not tested negative since becoming infected.
According to the CDC, people who had symptomatic COVID-19 can be with others at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared if they don’t have a fever and other symptoms are improving.
Hambley attended the hearing 11 days after he says symptoms first appeared. He denied that he could have transmitted the virus at that hearing.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it was well outside that window,” he said.
Dr. Mark Cameron, an immunologist at Case Western Reserve University, disagreed. He said while a positive test could be picking up on dead virus, it could also indicate that Hambley was still shedding and spreading coronavirus.
The clock should have restarted after Hambley’s second positive test, Cameron said.
“If he had a positive test several days before those meetings, he was still shedding virus, regardless of how long he had been infected,” Cameron said.
The precise source of the four lawmakers’ infections is unclear. Jach, without presenting any evidence, claimed to another media outlet that the infections occurred outside the Statehouse.
What’s clearer, however, is how basic infection control protocols that public health experts advise could have reduced the risk of viral spread.
For instance, many Republicans still refuse to wear masks, even as the House outbreak continues.
Contact tracing could prevent one case from turning into four cases — a reporter who attended the Dec. 2 hearing has not been contacted by any health department or House staff about the exposure.
“You could take full issue with anyone that does not take an exposure or a positive test seriously, and basically sound the alarm in terms of people they met with, worked with, and who should know about this risk,” Cameron said.
The House outbreak comes as the pandemic hits new highs in Ohio on a daily basis. ODH announced more than 10,000 new cases and 84 new deaths on Wednesday.
All told, at least 520,000 Ohioans have contracted COVID-19, though health officials say this is likely an underestimation. Nearly 7,200 have died, and more than 31,000 have been hospitalized.
Hambley insisted in an interview that he followed the CDC and ODH’s guidance and makes sure to wear a mask.
However, footage from recent House floor sessions show Hambley giving floor speeches and meandering about the House floor, not wearing a mask.
Hambley is not seeking reelection. On Dec. 2, he gave a farewell speech, about 15 minutes in duration, to the chamber. He was maskless the whole time.
Tyler Buchanan contributed to this report. This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. Thursday with comment from the Ohio Department of Health.