Rand Paul Tests Positive for Covid-19, Fueling Anxiety in the Capitol

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans were struggling to salvage a more than $1 trillion economic rescue package to respond to the coronavirus crisis when they got the message on Sunday afternoon: One of their own had been walking around the Capitol with Covid-19 for days as they debated how best to confront the rapidly spreading pandemic.

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Senator Rand Paul had tested positive for the coronavirus, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, told fellow Republicans over lunch. It was the news that lawmakers had been dreading for weeks as they went about their travel- and handshake-heavy routines while the disease circulated around the country.

The news set off a frantic race to retrace the steps of Mr. Paul, who had continued to show up in the Senate — even using the private senators’ gym, where he swam laps in the pool on Sunday morning — until he received the results of his coronavirus test sometime after his workout.

It injected a potentially dangerous new element into the intense negotiation over a stabilization package to bolster the country’s health system and social safety net and to prop up an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

Mr. Paul, 57, Republican of Kentucky and a former practicing eye doctor, was “asymptomatic,” his staff said, relieving immediate concerns about his health despite a 2017 injury that affected his lungs. But his diagnosis raised the likelihood that other members of the 100-person Senate, where nearly half are 65 or older, had been exposed and might fall ill or need to self-quarantine just as they were racing to enact the rescue plan.

Mr. Paul had been informed last weekend that he had attended a fund-raiser in Kentucky with two individuals who later tested positive for Covid-19, a warning that sent a handful of other prominent elected officials into self-quarantine out of caution.

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Not Mr. Paul.

He pressed on with his Washington schedule anyway. On Wednesday afternoon, he spoke and voted on the Senate floor. He dined at the Republicans’ closed luncheon on Thursday and on Friday, sitting with fellow senators. And after being informed of the diagnosis on Sunday, Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, rose to tell fellow Republicans at lunch that he had seen Mr. Paul that morning at the senators-only gym, according to two people who heard him and Mr. Moran’s spokesman.

“I’ve never commented about a fellow Senator’s choices/actions. Never once,” Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, who is known to frequent the senators-only pool, wrote on Twitter. “This, America, is absolutely irresponsible. You cannot be near other people while waiting for coronavirus test results. It endangers others & likely increases the spread of the virus.” (A spokesman for Ms. Sinema said she had been practicing social distancing and had not been to the pool in two weeks.)

The ripples could quickly be felt around the Capitol, one of the few places where work has continued in defiance of public health guidance that has shuttered most workplaces and discouraged large gatherings.

Both of Utah’s Republican senators, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, said Sunday afternoon that they would voluntarily quarantine themselves after close contact with Mr. Paul in recent days. They will now be unable to directly affect what could prove to be one of the most consequential votes of their careers.

Mr. Lee said he would be unable to fly or vote for 14 days. He did not report any symptoms of the virus.

Mr. Romney also said he felt fine but had been advised by the attending physician of Congress to isolate himself and get tested. He will be unable to see his wife, Ann, for two weeks because she has multiple sclerosis.

“Very, very unhappy to hear that Rand Paul has been diagnosed with Covid-19 — wish him the very best,” a visibly shaken Mr. Romney told reporters outside the Republican luncheon. He added, “And of course all senators are going to take steps to make sure that we don’t in any way spread this virus ourselves.”

At a news conference at the White House on Sunday evening, President Trump appeared to take some satisfaction in the situation of Mr. Romney, who voted last month to remove him from office on impeachment charges.

“Romney’s in isolation?” Mr. Trump said, stretching out the word “gee” before adding, “That’s too bad.”

Asked by a reporter if he was being sarcastic, Mr. Trump looked down and shook his head.

“No, no. None, whatsoever,” he said.

Others who had recently been near Mr. Paul sought guidance on Sunday from Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, though they continued to move through the Capitol.

In publicly announcing the news, Mr. Paul’s office played down the diagnosis and did not answer several questions about the senator’s activities and decision-making.

His deputy chief of staff, Sergio Gor, initially said that Mr. Paul was “asymptomatic and was tested out of an abundance of caution due to his extensive travel and events.” His Washington office began operating remotely 10 days ago, Mr. Gor said, and “hence virtually no staff has had contact” with him.

Hours later, Mr. Gor was more specific. He said the senator had decided to undergo testing “after attending an event where two individuals subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, even though he wasn’t aware of any direct contact with either one of them.”

That appeared to be a reference to a fund-raiser Mr. Paul went to this month in Louisville, Ky., where two attendees later tested positive for the virus. After the museum that hosted the event alerted attendees in an email last Sunday, several officials who had also been present — including the state’s governor and Louisville’s mayor — scrambled to get tested.

Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, announced that he would self-quarantine for two weeks while awaiting the results of his test, which later came back negative.

In an email to The New York Times on Sunday, Mr. Gor did not explain why Mr. Paul had been in the Senate gym Sunday morning if he knew he could have the disease. Mr. Gor did not disclose precisely when Mr. Paul had been tested.

After Mr. Moran reported his Sunday morning encounter with the senator, Mr. Paul’s staff posted on Twitter that he had “left the Senate IMMEDIATELY upon learning of his diagnosis.”

“He had zero contact with anyone & went into quarantine,” they added, sidestepping why the senator had been in the gym in the first place.

Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist by training, was a practicing doctor before joining the Senate. Like his father, Ron Paul, a former member of Congress, he considers himself a libertarian. Last week, he was one of only three senators to vote against a multibillion-dollar rescue bill to help fight the coronavirus because its costs had not been paid for and would contribute to the national debt.

Mr. Paul could be at elevated risk for adverse effects from the novel coronavirus, which can cause pneumonia, sometimes severe. In November 2017, Mr. Paul was violently attacked by his neighbor in Kentucky during a dispute and had to be hospitalized. As a result of the ensuing injuries, Mr. Paul had to undergo surgery in August to have part of his lung removed.

Two other members of Congress — Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, and Representative Ben McAdams, Democrat of Utah — have also tested positive for Covid-19. Mr. McAdams said in a statement on Sunday that he had been hospitalized and given oxygen over the weekend, but that his condition had stabilized.

When a half dozen other senators were exposed to individuals who had tested positive for the virus, they voluntarily self-isolated, as top health officials have advised. They also made sure to communicate with constituents that following the guidelines was an important matter of life and death, even for their elected leaders. Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, has been absent from the Senate for much of the week for that reason.

Privately, some lawmakers were incensed that Mr. Paul had continued to circulate among colleagues when he knew he might have the virus.

“Common sense would tell you, you shouldn’t expose people until you’ve been cleared,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told CNN. Mr. Graham voluntarily self-isolated earlier this month after being in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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