It’s been about six weeks since state Rep. Amy Nielsen tested positive for COVID-19, which she thinks she contracted at the Capitol, and she is still experiencing lingering symptoms.
The North Liberty Democrat on January 30 became the first lawmaker to contract the virus this year (or at least the first to publicly report it), making her one of six reported positive cases at the Capitol during a time when Republican leaders have refused to impose mask requirements or allow virtual votes and committee meetings. Because the Statehouse is not requiring public reporting of a sickness, it’s believed the total number may be higher.
Nielsen, who said she’d taken the pandemic very seriously before arriving in-person at the Capitol for the start of session, is only now emerging from a rough experience with the virus.
“I was completely healthy for almost a year in my home, doing all the precautions. I come to Des Moines where I’m at the Capitol or I’m at the grocery store and I’m masked both places, and within three weeks I have COVID,” Nielsen told Iowa Starting Line, pausing to catch her breath.
“I still get very easily winded, if I talk for too long I struggle with catching air. I’m very, very fatigued and weak. I think last week was probably the first time that I wasn’t just lying in bed all day … The majority party made it impossible for us to do our jobs safely and some of us are paying the price for that.”
After receiving her COVID-19 diagnosis, Nielsen said she immediately called and reported it to Democratic staff. The lawmaker said she thinks she knows where she contracted the virus, but cannot confirm a source — there is also no contact tracing at the Capitol.
Her symptoms started off as a “really horrible” cold with congestion and huffing, progressing into awful flu symptoms, a loss of taste and smell, gastrointestinal complications and now back to a severe cold during recovery. She visited the Emergency Room once when all of her symptoms onset suddenly but was sent home after healthy tests.
But before she contracted the virus, Nielsen said she had been committed to following CDC social distancing guidelines. She and her family stayed pretty much isolated from the time she got back from the Legislature’s special session in June.
“We pretty much did the hunker down, we did a lot of grocery delivery but went to the store on some occasions. And it was always wearing the mask, washed our hands as soon as we came home, took our shoes off, my oldest daughter would go so far as to change her clothes when she came home,” Nielsen said.
Save for a few outdoor meetings over the summer, the lawmaker campaigned for and won her House seat pretty much all virtually. She opted out of a traditional swearing-in ceremony in January with over a hundred people in the House chamber, participating instead in a Democratic caucus alternative in the Supreme Court chamber with about a dozen people.
Participating in the 2021 legislative session was more difficult. The lack of pandemic mitigation efforts made Nielsen feel actively unsafe at several points during the start of session. Once, a group of two Republican legislators and a visitor had an unmasked conversation near her desk on the floor. During subcommittee meetings, she actively asked her Republican colleagues to wear masks, but they refused.
“I had a group of unmasked people standing in front of my desk where I am double-masked, with sanitizing wipes all over, just talking. And I had to say, could you please take your unmasked conversations six feet away from me?” she said.
“It was that kind of blatant disregard and disrespect for my life and my health. If I have a subcommittee, two of the three people aren’t wearing masks. I say, ‘I would really appreciate if you’d put on a mask, and they say no.’”
Having perspective on how severe the virus can be, Nielsen said it frustrates her that very little COVID-19 relief has passed through the Legislature this session.
“I was frustrated before, and you can empathize all you want, but until it hits you personally, you don’t know the full extent. And now I just can’t believe how horribly Iowans are being treated right now,” she said.
“I feel really guilty that I’m able to take six to eigth weeks off my work and fully recover and be paid and so many other people are having real struggles. They’re laid off or lost their jobs completely or they got sick but couldn’t stay home. I don’t know how people did it when they had to go to work when they were sick. Especially people at the Tyson plant, that’s hard work. There’s no way I could have been doing that. I don’t think I could even do it now, six to eight weeks later.”
Her experience has also been an enlightening one in exposing just how much the Capitol has dealt with the virus despite claims from Republican leaders that the pandemic hasn’t touched their caucus.
“People who had emailed me saying they had it and not to tell anyone, or even that they have it now and not to tell anyone,” said Nielsen.
“This is everyone. In the Capitol, outside, everywhere. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who work in the Capitol, people who are staff members in the non-partisan and partisan offices who have said thank you for saying that because knowing that one person in the building who had tested positive helps me … But you didn’t do anything wrong to contract COVID, I didn’t do anything wrong. It happened. I did the best I could, but it takes 100% of 100% of us to stop this.”
by Isabella Murray
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