All three lawmakers were on the verge of joining the sort of congressional caucus no one wants to be a part of, testing positive for covid-19, caused by the virus that has killed more than 14,000 Americans.
So far, five members of Congress have tested positive, with a sixth presumed to be positive for the disease, out of 529 lawmakers. Three are Republicans; three are Democrats. One is a Mormon from Utah, another a Puerto Rican representing Brooklyn, another a Cuban American from the Miami area, and another is of Irish descent from the Rust Belt.
Their diversity is proof positive that the novel coronavirus spares no one based on region, politics or ethnicity.
No member of Congress has died, and each of their cases has run the gamut of symptoms. In interviews with three of the lawmakers, they came away with a deep appreciation for how tough it is to track the disease, some still unaware of how they contracted the virus given how careful they thought they were handling themselves.
“I took it seriously — before I got sick,” Diaz-Balart said during an hour-long phone interview this week. “Yet I got it. I have no idea how, when.”
Diaz-Balart, 58, had the experience that might be most representative of the over 400,000 Americans who have contracted the coronavirus, a debilitating struggle that floored him but did not require a hospital visit or use of breathing equipment.
Cunningham, 37, had the most asymptomatic experience, while his fellow freshman Democrat McAdams, 45, ended up losing 13 pounds over an eight-day stay in a hospital with an oxygen machine helping him breath. He never needed a ventilator, but the night before he went to the hospital, he could not walk across his bedroom without stopping.
“I felt like I had a belt around my chest that was cinched up,” McAdams said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) issued a statement last week saying it took five days for her to feel she was “turning a corner” after developing symptoms on March 29. Her doctors never tested her, presuming she had the virus and preserving tests for those who are in the greatest need as New York remains the state hit hardest by the virus.
On Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced that, after more than two weeks since he tested positive, doctors confirmed he was now negative for the virus. Paul, an eye surgeon, has said that he was never symptomatic and is now volunteering at Kentucky medical facilities.
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) told local media outlets that his initial suspicion of having the flu gave way to a trip to his family doctor after he lost his sense of taste and his body ached amid feverish chills. That positive test arrived on March 27, a day he otherwise might have been in Washington to support the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill, the third relief package.
Diaz-Balart is still counting his blessings. His wife, Tia, is a cancer survivor with a chronic lung condition that can turn a common cold into a hospital stay with pneumonia.
So, on the morning of March 13, the congressman called their doctor and explained how much work he had done that week: On Monday, he flew from Miami to Orlando to meet transportation industry officials, then off to Washington for a busy week. He met with about 50 people in his office, including constituents and members of the Spanish parliament. One evening, he walked across the street for a Library of Congress gala celebrating the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Lithuania, attended by a contingent from that nation.
On March 13, he spent about two hours with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and a handful of other members of the whip team, preparing for a late-night vote on a roughly $100 billion coronavirus bill, the second package.
His doctor delivered a blunt message to Diaz-Balart: “You can’t bring this home to Tia.”
So, without any symptoms, he canceled the next day’s flight and prepped for two weeks in his tiny apartment in Washington.
That Saturday morning, March 14, he ordered online groceries, but that night, his world crashed in — a splitting headache, fever and brutal cough that made everything hurt.
“Even my hair — I don’t have much of it — that hurt,” he said.
The next day, he walked to the Capitol to see a doctor in the Office of the Attending Physician, where he was tested for the flu and covid-19. The test came back positive, and he wasn’t surprised, given how terrible he felt just drinking water.
He got through a three-week quarantine, holed up in his apartment, because of the kindness of strangers and his wife’s diligent work back home in Miami.
Neighbors he has still never met heard the news he was sick and left a card under his door with their contact information, so Tia Diaz-Balart reached out to them and organized an effort to deliver supplies — extra doses of Tylenol, Gatorade, more food when he felt better — by having friends drop packages on the doorstep of his apartment building.
As Cunningham waited out that late-night March 13 vote, he got together with a few other Democrats, including McAdams. No one realized that, a few days earlier, McAdams had met with a Salt Lake City group that included at least one person who later tested positive.
The next morning, the Democrats flew back to their districts.
A couple of days later, Cunningham could barely taste food. He later learned that McAdams tested positive and began his own self-quarantine in Charleston.
He decided to get a test from his local doctor the following week only when Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) threatened to force an entire roll-call vote on House passage of the $2 trillion legislation.
“Far enough up your nose to tickle your brain,” Cunningham recalled of his test. It came back positive, and he continued his quarantine without ever having more serious complications.
McAdams wasn’t as lucky.
Home in Utah Saturday night, March 14, he declined to go out with his friends because something felt off. “I don’t think I have coronavirus,” he recalled telling his wife, “but I should stay home.”
Three days later, after his temperature hit 102, his doctor told McAdams to go to a drive-through clinic in Salt Lake City. He got the positive result the next day but pushed himself all week trying to work with constituents struggling from the economic shutdown.
On March 20, everything went haywire — his fever spiking, his breathing difficult — and he went to a hospital. For eight days, he was on and off an oxygen machine, feeling better in the morning only to “just crash” every evening.
The doctors gave him Tylenol for the fever and for five days used an experimental treatment and also prescribed hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that President Trump and his advisers have been promoting.
McAdams has no idea whether it helped. “I felt pretty awful the entire time,” he said. “Maybe it made me feel less awful.”
Released on March 28, his doctors told him that his cough will last another month, same with Diaz-Balart.
Cunningham, who suffered the least, has come away adamant about looking for ways that lawmakers could work remotely so they do not create more risk of spreading the virus. “We have to look at other ways to carry on our business,” he said.
Diaz-Balart said that he appreciated how bipartisan leaders set up a voice vote on March 27 to pass the $2 trillion legislation, so a few hundred could stay home. A full return to Washington is “the last thing you want,” he said.
But McAdams said Congress needs to be ready to act to help fight a virus that has wreaked such havoc.
“There are risks that we may need to take,” he said. “We have an essential duty.”