Top state Senate Republican catches COVID; dozens of state reps skip test

    The Georgia Senate GOP leader announced he caught COVID-19 on the second day of the Legislature and House Speaker David Ralston said barely half of his chamber's members complied with testing requirements when the session started Monday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

    Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan announced Tuesday – just the second day of the legislative session – that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

    Dugan said on Twitter that his symptoms were minor and that he planned to isolate at home.

    Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan (Photo: Georgia Senate)

    The Carrollton Republican was tested Monday as part of the Legislature’s COVID-19 safety protocols as lawmakers attempt to carry on with their usual 40-day session while coronavirus cases surge in the state. Lawmakers and staff will be tested twice a week.

    Five people – including two senators – have tested positive so far on the Senate side this week. The House of Representatives did not release its results.

    “We aren’t commenting on testing data or specific results for the House,” Kaleb McMichen, communications director for the House Speaker David Ralston, said Tuesday.

    But Ralston publicly scolded members Tuesday afternoon after 74 House lawmakers who were present in the state Capitol on the first day of the session Monday failed to get tested. There are 180 members in the House, so that means just a little over half the chamber participated in the first day of the testing surveillance program.

    The Blue Ridge Republican called the tally of untested lawmakers a “bipartisan count.”

    “I don’t know if y’all were aware but we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Ralston said.

    “We’re doing everything we possibly can to keep you safe, but it takes a little bit of initiative on your part and following the rules because if you don’t want to keep yourself safe, I’d like for you to keep your neighbor safe and me safe and those around you safe,” he said.

    The saliva-based testing is being administered by Georgia Tech University on site. Those who test positive are being informed early the next day to prevent their return to the Capitol.

    The pandemic abruptly suspended last year’s legislative session in mid-March on Crossover Day, which is the deadline for a bill to clear one chamber to have the clearest path to becoming law. The General Assembly returned in June to finish their work.

    Legislative leaders have expanded the safety protocols for this year’s session, including the new testing requirement. Legislators must also wear a face mask in both chambers and not just in the House, as was the case last summer. House members are also once again spread across the chamber, the public viewing gallery and an adjacent meeting room.

    Lawmakers and staff will be tested again Thursday, and those who are present in person for next week’s budget hearings will also be tested twice next week. Those who can participate virtually are being encouraged to do so.

    “As the pastor said this morning, we need to depend on God and not ourselves but we certainly need to do our part,” House Majority Leader Jon Burns, a Newingon Republican, said to his colleagues Tuesday, referring to the testing.

    “And this is part we can do to help in this pandemic and help be good stewards of our neighbor’s health and our own.”

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.