In the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol, members of Congress are getting COVID-19 despite starting vaccinations days earlier.
The cases are a good demonstration of how long it takes people to get immunity after getting a vaccine, and their vulnerability to the coronavirus even after getting their shots, say public health experts.
“No vaccine works in two days, they’re not magic,” said infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The human body takes time to develop the antibodies that lead to protection after vaccination.”
On Thursday morning, Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York joined at least three other colleagues reporting they had contracted COVID-19 following the Jan. 6 attack. On Sunday, the Capitol’s attending physician notified lawmakers they were exposed to the virus while dozens of them stayed, some for hours, in a secure conference room during the attack. The three lawmakers noted that several Republicans in the secure room had refused to wear masks.
Espaillat’s office told BuzzFeed News that he tested positive on Wednesday night after routine testing, and that he was not experiencing any symptoms. They did not immediately respond to questions about whether he was in the secure room on the day of the attack. Espaillat was present on the House floor on Wednesday night, while wearing a face mask, during the vote to impeach President Donald Trump.
Espillat said he had received the second dose of the vaccine last week, while Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Brad Schneider had received first doses on Jan. 4.
Once injected, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines trigger cells to produce proteins mimicking parts of the coronavirus, spurring antibodies to attack the virus as well as more slowly developing “memory” cells that can trigger a longer term immune response. Both of the vaccines require two shots, spaced apart by 21 days and 28 days respectively, to fully develop this protection. Clinical trials suggest they both lead to some protection starting about 10 days after the first shot, but lead to a 95% reduction in COVID-19 cases about two weeks after the second shot, according to the CDC.
Even after those two weeks, it’s still not known whether the vaccines prevent transmission of the virus, versus preventing symptoms. For this reason, health experts strongly recommend that people continue to wear masks after getting vaccinated, the most simple and effective known way to lower the odds of passing around an infection in a crowded setting, said Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board member Celine Gounder of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, speaking during a Thursday briefing.
Congress started getting shots in the week before Christmas, starting with top leadership, and second doses of those vaccines only started public distribution last week. That means that many of the people secured together during the attack had little protection from infection.
Even before the riot, Capitol Hill had struggled to control infections, with lawmakers flying back and forth to Washington and many Republicans refusing to wear masks. In response to these concerns and in light of the infections following the riot, Democrats in the House on Tuesday introduced a bill that would place a $1,000 fine per day on members who refuse to wear masks in the Capitol.
“The cases we are seeing in Congress, I suspect, we’ll see more,” said Adalja. “They were crowded together with people shouting and yelling, which we know spreads the virus. It has all the ingredients to become a superspreader event.”