Three days before several GOP state senators held a gathering in a hotel conference room packed full of people, the White House Coronavirus Task Force warned Pennsylvania leaders that it hit another alarming milestone in COVID-19 spread—a warning accompanied with urgent recommendations:
“Ensure masks at all times in public, increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity in public and private indoor spaces, and ensure every American understands the clear risks of ANY family or friend interactions outside of their immediate household indoors without masks.”
It added: “Recent restrictions are warranted and commendable.”
Test positivity rate is a key marker of how a state is handling the virus. By Nov. 22, the commonwealth reached a rate of 10.1%, according to the task force report, which the state Department of Health made public on its website. The increasing rate moved the state into the “red zone,” a category that signals uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County requested the Nov. 25 state Senate Majority Policy meeting. Lawmakers and dozens of members of the public, most without masks, attended the event at the Wyndham Hotel in Gettysburg. Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis repeated debunked claims about election fraud. President Trump also addressed the crowd by phone, making at least 15 false or misleading claims. Throughout the event, people without face coverings in the tightly-packed room cheered and applauded, video footage shows.
After the more-than four-hour event, Mastriano headed to the White House to talk with Trump. There, Mastriano was pulled out of a meeting with the President after his rapid COVID-19 test came back positive, according to an Associated Press report.
State Sen. Judy Ward of Blair County sat near Mastriano during the Nov. 25 meeting, and announced Monday evening she also tested positive for the virus.
Most lawmakers who attended the event haven’t spoken publicly about it, leaving open questions about how much GOP leaders knew about their personal risk for spreading the virus when they held the meeting.
Mastriano did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Monday night, Mastriano talked about his diagnosis on Facebook Live. Tuesday, he told conservative pundit Glenn Beck he was feeling “fantastic.”
Ward did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Her office did not mention her diagnosis in public communications Tuesday.
GOP state Sen. David Argall of Schuylkill and Berks counties, who sat next to Mastriano at the Gettysburg event, did not respond to requests for comment.
WITF partner Spotlight PA reported Wednesday that Interim Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman of Centre County acknowledged “mistakes were made,” while Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County has not responded to requests for comment.
Because contact tracing guarantees anonymity, the state declined to say whether people who attended the Nov. 25 event were reached.
“We have told Pennsylvanians who attended any large event to contact their health care provider if they have questions about their health and remind them that testing is available,” said spokesman Nate Wardle, adding that people should download the COVID Alert Pa app to learn more about their exposure risk and to help out with the public health effort.
For months, some state GOP lawmakers have downplayed the seriousness of the virus that has killed more than 10,500 Pennsylvanians.
Much of that ire has been seen as political: Beginning in April, Republican members of the General Assembly spoke at “Reopen PA” rallies. At the time, some people were facing COVID-19-related job losses and business closures even as their parts of the state had few or no cases. Lawmakers blamed those losses on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. Some called to impeach Wolf. Mastriano called for Levine to resign.
As the initial surge of cases waned, Republicans in both branches of the General Assembly, including Mastriano, regularly held public events without masks, in defiance of the state’s orders. As cases rose in the fall, Republicans continued to gather indoors without face coverings or physical distancing.
Unlike the state’s orders, the White House Coronavirus Task Force reports come from the Republican Trump Administration. However, state Senate Republicans do not read those reports, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. They also don’t see reports from the state Department of Health, she said. When the state senate committee planned the Gettysburg event, it was unaware that the White House Coronavirus Task Force had moved Pennsylvania into the red zone for cases and positive test rates, Kocher said.
On the House GOP side, Republicans do listen in on calls from the state Department of Health that sometimes include updates from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, according to GOP spokesman Mike Straub.
“There are conference calls with all legislative leaders usually ahead of most major announcements,” Straub said. “I would say these calls were more regular early in the pandemic, but they still happen occasionally.”
An earlier White House report dated Nov. 1 put the state in the “red zone” for the number of cases compared to the population statewide, another marker of community spread.
By Nov. 22, the White House report showed a state in the throes of unmitigated community spread. Ninety-four percent of all counties in Pennsylvania had moderate or high levels of community transmission, with 67% having high levels.
Statewide, inpatient bed use was above 74% and ICU bed use was almost 82%. Twenty-six hospitals reported critical staffing shortages.
During the second week of November, 20% of nursing homes had at least one new resident COVID-19 case and 44% had at least one new staff COVID-19 case. Dozens of outbreaks among residents and staff at long-term care facilities were reported across the state.
The report includes a long list of recommendations and notes that states with “aggressive mitigation” measures are having some success.
“We are also seeing stabilization in many European countries that implemented strong public and private mitigation, but preserved schooling,” the report states. “However, in many areas of the country, mitigation efforts are inadequate or too recently implemented to see a significant impact.”
The task force released another dire report on Nov. 29, showing that Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 positivity rate remains at 10.1 percent. It remains in the red zone for cases as well, with the 25th highest case ration in the country.
“We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity,” the report states. “A further post-Thanksgiving surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall.”