'Several' at Maryland State House test positive for coronavirus

The president of the Maryland Senate announced "several positive rapid test results" among lawmakers or staff Tuesday, and a number of senators missed the in-person floor session - apparently because they were either infected or quarantining.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, said the tests were part of the surveillance testing program the General Assembly began last month, at the start of the legislative session. Senators are tested twice a week, and staff members are tested weekly.

Ferguson spokesman Jake Weissmann declined to identify who had tested positive, citing privacy concerns. Ferguson said contact-tracing had taken place, and those who tested positive with the rapid tests were now awaiting results from the more reliable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Six of the 47 senators were absent when the floor session ended Tuesday.

"This is what we planned for . . . all of the plans and operations that we put together were built around the possibility, the challenges of trying to legislate in the midst of a pandemic," Ferguson said. "We will continue to err on the side of health and caution."

The legislature has made a number of major changes to how it conducts business because of the pandemic. The public does not have access to the floor sessions or committee hearings. Masks are required inside State House complex buildings, and senators sit in plexiglass booths.

The Senate is currently operating under its Stage 3 plan, which allows for debate and voting in person on the floor. Ferguson said he will make adjustments to the operations based on the PCR results, if necessary. Under Stage 2, debate and voting would occur virtually from committee rooms, and under stage 1, debate and voting is paused.

Five senators who serve on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which has been having marathon in-person voting sessions on several major police reform bills, were absent Tuesday. Sen. William Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, who chairs the committee, said the panel will continue working on the bills virtually.

One senator who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee was also missing.

Every lawmaker in the General Assembly has been offered the coronavirus vaccine, and all but 10 of the 141 members of the House of Delegates have been vaccinated. Ferguson has declined to say how many senators were vaccinated.

Sen. Jason Gallion, R-Harford, has questioned the reliability of the rapid tests, saying he had a false-positive result a few weeks ago and suggesting that the Senate scrap them.

Ferguson said the rapid tests are key part of the Senate surveillance program and have worked well during the first 40 days of session.

He ended Tuesday's session reminding senators to wear their masks "above their nose and below their chin," and to wash their hands. "The little things matter the most," he said. "The key is risk mitigation."