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COVID ALARM - MPs urged to undergo test as House marshal positive for virus

Published:Tuesday | October 6, 2020 | 6:24 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter

Jamaica’s 63 legislators in the House of Representatives have been urged to undergo COVID-19 testing immediately after the parliamentary marshal, who was in close contact with the majority of them at the September 29 sitting, registered positive for the virus five days later.

The call for mass testing among members of parliament (MPs) was made on Monday by Opposition Spokesperson on Health Dr Morais Guy, who said that “contact tracing and contact testing are also critical at this time”.

Captain Wayne Blake took the coronavirus test 48 hours after interacting with around 90 per cent of MPs during the second session of the new parliamentary term.

It is uncertain whether the development will threaten today’s sitting of the House, which Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Education Minister Fayval Williams are expected to address.

But of greater concern is that at least 18 MPs are 60 years or older – the age cohort that is particularly vulnerable to the highly contagious virus, which has killed 120 people in Jamaica and more than a million globally.

The 18 MPs translate to almost a third of the representatives of the Lower House.

The situation comes against the backdrop of the political drama unfolding in Jamaica’s northern neighbour, the United States, where President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 result has caused a twist in the run-up to the November 3 election and could jeopardise his bid to ram home a Supreme Court appointment through the Senate.

Back home, Blake, who learned on Sunday that he had the virus, having done a test last Thursday, distributed new parliamentary plates for vehicles on September 29 to dozens of parliamentarians, including Cabinet ministers, members of the executive, government backbenchers, and the Opposition.

Guy, a medical doctor, said that a person with COVID-19 is most infectious when he presents with symptoms. However, he argues that even without symptoms, a COVID-19-infected person could start spreading the virus two days before he presents with symptoms.

“It would put some parliamentarians at risk. It could also mean that he could have contracted it from one of us,” the lawmaker told The Gleaner on Monday.

“One of the things that needs to happen now is that the House ought properly to avail itself to testing to see whether there is any member who might have the virus,” he said.

Guy believes that not only should parliamentarians be tested, but the staff of the legislature.

Describing parliamentarians as a “special breed”, Guy pointed out that all 63 lawmakers are from the 14 parishes, arguing that they interface with thousands of constituents across the country.

The marshal told The Gleaner on Monday that he did not feel any symptoms on Tuesday, September 29 while he was carrying out his duties.

“I did not have any adverse feeling that would give rise to the consideration of me having COVID, so there was no indication to suggest that I had it,” he said.

Blake said that he interacted with more than 55 lawmakers last Tuesday as he distributed the plates for their vehicles.

“I moved from desk to desk issuing those security paraphernalia and some borrowed my pen,” he said.

The marshal said that the only lawmakers he did not deliver an envelope to were Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips, Karl Samuda, James Robertson, and Dr Nigel Clarke.

Blake said he had an appointment at a hospital last Thursday and decided to also test for COVID-19 after feeling his sinuses “acting up”.

Mike Henry, the most senior lawmaker at the age of 85, supported the suggestion that all parliamentarians be tested for COVID-19.

Henry said he got word that Gordon House would have been closed on Monday for deep cleaning, but noted that he heard nothing about the Jamaica Conference Centre where lawmakers met last Tuesday.

“… It’s no point spraying Gordon House and not spraying the conference centre,” he said.

Last evening, Parliament issued a terse release advising the public that it would resume regular operations today, just over 24 hours after deep cleaning in relation to a staffer testing positive for COVID-19.

The staffer was not named.

Henry said he has not opened the envelope that was handed to him by the marshal.

“I may have to double-check if I have to test because he was close to me on about three or four occasions,” the veteran legislator told The Gleaner.

“I suppose the matter can be compounded now as to whether you can delay the running of governance like it’s happening in the United States with President Trump,” Henry asserted.

Trump, his wife Melania and more than a dozen aides and allies have tested positive for the virus in less than a week. It is believed that the positive results may have occurred as a result of so-called super-spreader events attended by Trump and others in his circle.

On the question of whether Parliament is taking steps to facilitate virtual participation by some members, Guy said that during the last session, a House committee met and submitted recommendations for consideration by the Standing Orders Committee.

However, he said that unanimity could not be reached on how the Parliament should meet.

“In fact, the whole argument of virtual meetings was shot down in the committee, from my understanding, because there were some members who felt that this was impractical,” the opposition spokesman said.

He recalled that a virtual meeting of the Public Accounts Committee “did not get any legal status because there were objections to it being held, although the select committee on COVID was allowed to meet virtually”.