ST. PAUL — A top Minnesota Republican on Tuesday, Nov. 17, said he and others could've better handled reporting about the coronavirus among state senators following exposure at a post-election party.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he and other members of his caucus would learn from recent critiques after four state senators reported positive COVID-19 tests after attending a dinner party with more than 100 people two days after the general election.
“In recent days, there has been media and political criticism of the Senate majority caucus holding its traditional post-election caucus gathering and how we handled subsequent news that some of us at that event later tested positive for COVID-19," Gazelka said. "In hindsight, we could have handled the event and our information sharing differently."
Gazelka on Sunday, Nov. 15, announced that he'd tested positive for the coronavirus.
Democrats in the Minnesota Senate and Gov. Tim Walz have criticized Republicans for not notifying them about cases of COVID-19 among Republicans before several attended an in-person special legislative session on Nov. 12. A spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans said those who tested positive for COVID-19 and those who displayed symptoms logged on for the session remotely.
But Democratic senators said having Republicans who'd come in contact with the infected lawmakers could've resulted in further spread by senators who were asymptomatic or who had minor symptoms.
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, on Sunday called on Gazelka to step down as majority leader after the cluster of cases, including Gazelka's, came to light. And Sen. Matt Klein, a physician, urged Gazelka to release additional information about lawmakers and staff who attended the special session.
"I continue to care for patients on a regular basis," Klein, a Mendota Heights Democrat, said. "For their safety and my own, I demand that Senator Gazelka tell us if any of the members or staff who attended the November 12 special session with me have been tested or have experienced symptoms and if any of those tests have been positive."
Four senators — Gazelka; Dave Senjem, R-Rochester; Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, and Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud — have reported positive COVID-19 cases in the last week. Information about the infections came to light after lawmakers adjourned a Nov. 12 special session and only after Capitol Press Corps. reporters pressed for answers about potential spread at the Capitol.
Health privacy laws limit the information that can be shared publicly about those who test positive for the virus. And the only cases that become public are those that infected individuals grant caucus spokespeople the ability to share.
As a result, more lawmakers or staff members could've had or could still have the virus but the public and those at the Capitol might not find out. The Minnesota Senate on Monday, Nov. 16, adopted a new policy following the recent case reports there requiring staff and members to report a positive COVID-19 test to Senate Human Services so staff can begin contact tracing.
"We in the Minnesota Senate have had to balance — sometimes by trial and error — restrictions for the safety of constituents, staff and colleagues with our constitutional duty to represent and be accessible to our fellow citizens," Gazelka said. "We don’t always get this balance right but it’s important that we learn from our experiences, exercise good judgment and work at constant self-improvements."
A spokeswoman at the Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday said that state contact tracers had not tracked a COVID-19 cluster stemming from the Senate GOP's post-election party or other legislative gatherings but would continue monitoring to see if such a cluster materialized following additional interviewing.
"Our team looked and we have not found any cluster of cases associated with any of the events reported in the media or gatherings involving legislators," Erin McHenry, an MDH spokeswoman, said in response to a Forum News Service query. "Of course, it might be too soon for us to catch it given the number of cases we currently have, and we also depend on cases reporting the info during their interview."
Gazelka said the Lake Elmo, Minn. venue that hosted the party should be held harmless for possible spread among lawmakers and other attendees as they followed state guidelines at the time. "They had us spaced out at tables, their staff wore masks, and we enjoyed their hospitality," he said. "No one should punish them for this event, and we all need to support small businesses as they weather this storm."