COVID-19 case in Texas House forces exposed members to quarantine

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House passed rules Thursday that do not mandate member testing

This article has been updated throughout.

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Less than three days since the Texas House gaveled in to start the legislative session, lawmakers are self-isolating amid a possible exposure of COVID-19 on the House floor.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, R-Beaumont, confirmed in a Facebook Live video he learned of his COVID-positive diagnosis after a rapid test outside the Capitol as he headed home Thursday afternoon. The Texas Tribune first reported Friday morning that Deshotel tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday night.

Speaker Dade Phelan wished Deshotel well, a spokesperson confirmed in a statement Friday.

“Speaker Phelan has communicated with Rep. Deshotel to offer his well wishes and to offer him and his team any assistance they need,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.

“I do feel fine,” Deshotel said in the video, streamed live from quarantine. “(I) feel like I’m coming down with a with a cold, some slight pain in my upper back.”

“I have no idea how I contracted it,” Deshotel, who is currently quarantining and reported minor symptoms, told the Texas Tribune. “I don’t know where it came from. It rather shocked me when the guy told me.”

Deshotel introduced Phelan at Tuesday’s proceedings, holding his facemask in his hand at the front mic.

According to the Texas Tribune, Deshotel said he was tested for the virus last Friday, then again on Thursday, and he did not get tested before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday. According to guidance ahead of opening day of the legislative session, members were asked to take a COVID-19 test.

State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, called Deshotel’s decision not to test before joining colleagues in the chamber “very selfish and irresponsible.”

“The 15-min free state-provided Rapid Binax Test for antigens is painless and simple,” Holland stated. “Anyone that objected to take one prior to Tuesday clearly did so out of pride. Shame on them.”

Lawmakers who came in close contact with Deshotel began the self-isolation process due to the possibility they were exposed on the House floor.

Deshotel was pictured on Dec. 30 alongside other Houston-area elected officials receiving their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. He

Deshotel sits behind State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton.

“I was informed, last night, a member in my 3-foot radius on the TX house floor tested positive for #COVID19,” Beckley tweeted Friday morning.

“They did not test on Tuesday prior to the swearing in ceremony,” Beckley wrote, without mentioning her colleague by name. “I was on the floor weds & thurs & exposed -10 day self quarantine #txlege.”

Beckley is frustrated House rules don’t align with CDC guidance to stay six feet apart. The distance between House seats is three feet, she said.

“Now six of us have to isolate,” Beckley said in a Friday afternoon Zoom interview from home. “I don’t want to be the one ‘I told you so,’ but I was very vocal that these rules were not in place—were not strong enough—and now here we are, week one.”

“It’s been so shocking to me that this happened so fast, that it was the member of the Democratic Caucus, and that I’m now having to deal with this now,” Beckley explained.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, who sits behind Deshotel in the chamber, said Friday she was one of his close contacts, and she was entering self-quarantine, per federal health guidelines.

“Grateful that I chose to wear a N95 on the floor, and grateful that Rep. Deshotel chose to inform colleagues quickly and set a tone of transparency for this session,” Zwiener tweeted.

“There’s 0 shame in a COVID-19 diagnosis,” she continued. “Cases are high across the state, so having cases on the House floor was almost inevitable. We can take care of each other by following masking guidelines and quickly informing our colleagues if they’ve been exposed.”

In an interview, Zwiener said she was grateful to know about the situation so she could make plans to self-isolate and cancel appointments.

“I expected to be exposed to COVID the first week, but I didn’t necessarily expect a member to come forward and admit to it admit to testing positive,” Zwiener said in a Zoom interview.

Before wishing Deshotel a “speedy recovery,” Zwiener tweeted she hoped her colleagues would show the “same transparency” Deshotel showed, “and I can guarantee y’all that if I test positive for COVID, you’ll hear about it from me.”

Deshotel’s diagnosis comes hours after the chamber voted on rules that do not mandate testing for members, staff, or the public to enter the chamber.

Deshotel was also a participant in a panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation on Wednesday.

A formal request to Deshotel for an update on his condition and a public statement were not immediately returned.

Speaker Phelan’s office sent a memo to House members, indicating that the “Texas House of Representatives is following CDC guidelines following exposure to COVID-19.” The letter reiterates coronavirus testing is optional. Phelan’s Friday statement urged lawmakers and their staffs to be tested regularly.

“Stay safe,” Deshotel said in his video. “Wear your mask, social distance, wash your hands and use sanitizer.”

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