Capitol Riot Likely a Superspreader Event

Ralph Ellis

January 11, 2021

Updated January 12, 2021 with more members of Congress testing positive

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The storming of the US Capitol by President Donald Trump's supporters Wednesday was probably a superspreader event that "will have public health consequences," CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers.

That prediction is starting to come true as at least four members of Congress have since announced they've tested positive for COVID-19.

"I do think you have to anticipate that this is another surge event," Redfield said on Friday. "You had largely unmasked individuals in a nondistanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol.

"Then these individuals all are going in cars and trains and planes going home all across the country right now. So I do think this is an event that will probably lead to a significant spreading event," he said. "This is an event that is going to have public health consequences."

Thousands of protesters, almost none of them wearing masks, gathered outside the Capitol before a large number of them invaded the building. Photos and videos showed them crowded together inside and clashing with police. Members of Congress were sequestered in an undisclosed location, where some of them went maskless.

As a result, many of those US House members were likely exposed to the virus, Brian Monahan, MD, Congress' attending physician said in a memo.

"On Wednesday, January 6, many members of the House community were in protective isolation in [a] room located in a large committee hearing space. The time in this room was several hours for some and briefer for others. During this time, individuals may have been exposed to another occupant with coronavirus infection," Monahan wrote.

Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-NJ, and Jake LaTurner, R-KS, Pramila Jayapal, D-WA, and Brad Schneider, D-IL, have revealed positive COVID tests since the Wednesday riot.

LaTurner announced his positive test result late Wednesday, after the day's events. He had been in the House chamber earlier in the day, Axios reported.

Watson Coleman revealed her positive test today.

"She believes she was exposed during protective isolation in the US Capitol Building as a result of insurrectionist riots," according to a statement on her congressional website. "As reported by multiple news outlets, a number of members within the space ignored instructions to wear masks."

As lawmakers were in lockdown during the riot, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-DE, offered multiple colleagues masks. A video obtained by CNN shows a number of maskless Republicans refusing her offer.

Jayapal was in that room, she said while announcing her positive test result on Monday.

"Many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a …mask in a crowded room during a pandemic — creating a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack," she said in a statement on her website.

Schneider was likewise in the safe room and also directed his ire at his Republican colleagues. 

"Today, I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife's health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers who put their own contempt and disregard for decency ahead of the health and safety of their colleagues and our staff," he said in a statement.

Jonathan Fielding, a professor at the schools of Public Health and Medicine at UCLA, told The Washington Post that the situation during the Capitol lockdown was a prime COVID transmission scenario. 

"If you wanted to organize an event to maximize the spread of COVID it would be difficult to find one better than the one we witnessed," he said.

Contact tracing will be nearly impossible. Protesters came from all over the country and few of them were identified or arrested.

Also, any increase in case numbers caused by the riot would be swallowed up by the already growing number of COVID-19 cases nationwide. On Thursday, the United States topped 4000 daily new cases for the first time.

"It is a very real possibility that this will lead to a major outbreak but one that we may or may not be able to recognize," Eric Toner, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Post. "All the cases to likely derive from this event will likely be lost in the huge number of cases we have in the country right now."

Rep. Susan Wild, D-PA, expressed concern over fellow lawmakers. She told CBS News that Capitol security officers evacuated her and other members of Congress into a crowded location with 300 to 400 other people.

"It's what I would call a COVID superspreader event," she said. "About half the people in the room are not wearing masks, even though they've been offered surgical masks. They've refused to wear them."

"We weren't even allowed to get together with our families for Thanksgiving and Christmas," she said, "and now we're in a room with people who are flaunting the rules."


Sacramento Bee. "CDC’s Redfield warns storming of Capitol was a ‘surge event’ in coronavirus pandemic"

Washington Post. "Storming of Capitol was textbook potential coronavirus superspreader, experts say"

CBS News. "Congresswoman describes holding location as "super-spreader event"