MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly last month rejected an immunocompromised Democratic lawmaker's request to be allowed to work virtually because the speaker erroneously insisted that COVID-19 can't be transmitted through the air.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and the Legislature’s human resources director, Amanda Jorgenson, have each rejected requests from Democratic state Rep. Jodi Emerson to be allowed to participate in floor sessions and committee hearings from her office instead of in person, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday.
The Eau Claire lawmaker and her doctor made the request to reduce Emerson’s risk of contracting the virus because of a medication she takes to suppress her immune system to manage an autoimmune disease that she was diagnosed with years ago, the newspaper reported.
Jorgenson, who is in a nonpartisan staff position, rejected Emerson's request on April 4, saying, “As you are aware, COVID-19 is not an airborne transmitted disease. Therefore, protection for you is based on limiting particulate exposure.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that COVID-19 can spread through airborne transmission.
“I don’t know what research they are reading. But COVID-19 can clearly be transmitted via airborne spread,” said Patrick Remington, a former epidemiologist for the CDC and director of the Preventive Medicine Residency Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
“It might not be the predominant mode of transmission, but it is clearly able to be transmitted via small particles through the air," Remington said.
After the Journal Sentinel reached out to Jorgenson and Vos seeking the research they used to make the statement, Emerson received a new letter April 23 from Jorgenson acknowledging that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the air.
Vos said in a statement that Emerson has been offered a number of accommodations “and has yet to respond to the Legislative Human Resources Office on the matter.”
Emerson, who is now fully vaccinated, has retained an attorney who wrote to Vos and said the denial violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Vos said in 2019 that he didn't think that law applied to the Legislature, which has broad authority to set its own rules.
Vos previously refused to change Assembly rules that require representatives to show up at committee meetings in person in response to a request he denied from Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.
Anderson recently renewed his request to be able to participate in Assembly business remotely.