“In the last 24 hours, I’ve lost two friends,” House Speaker David Ralston said, choking up at a press conference Thursday. “Everybody is losing friends, family members.”
The pandemic has influenced legislation — like the amended 2021 budget the House passed Thursday. Lawmakers added tens of millions of dollars in health spending to help combat COVID-19. And Ralston put the budget on a fast track in case the General Assembly must suspend the session, as it did last year, amid the pandemic.
But lawmakers’ personal safety also is at stake. In the first week of the session, nine people connected with the Senate — including Majority Leader Mike Dugan — tested positive for COVID-19.
The House has not released similar statistics, but Ralston said “two or three” representatives have tested positive.
If they needed a reminder of the personal stakes, lawmakers got one Thursday, when a colleague rose to commend Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat who’s been working at the Capitol despite serious, lingering health problems caused by COVID-19.
Sharper, 49, tested positive for the disease on Dec. 10. He later went to the hospital for overnight observation, but he wound up staying 11 days. He’s been out for more than a month, but he’s still suffering from lingering symptoms.
He gets winded walking from the parking garage to his office. Sometimes he takes a break to catch his breath after getting dressed in the morning.
Sharper uses a pulse oximeter to check his oxygen levels. He sleeps with a portable oxygen machine and carries it around during the day. He’ll get another lung X-ray in four to five weeks to check his progress.
He wept and apologized as he recounted his plight.
“This is my first time, really, talking about it,” Sharper told reporters, wiping his eyes. “That’s why I’m real emotional.”
Clark, a Buford Republican, also was emotional after he was escorted out of the House chamber by a state trooper Tuesday, at Ralston’s direction. Under House and Senate rules, all lawmakers and employees are tested for COVID-19 twice a week. Clark, 34, had refused to be tested.
After he was kicked out of the chamber, Clark was angry. He likened Ralston to a dictator, vowed not to cave in and threatened to file a lawsuit.
On Thursday, Clark relented under protest, underwent the test at the Capitol and took his seat in the House chamber. But he said the tests are a waste of taxpayer money and should be reserved only for people with COVID-19 symptoms.
A spokesman for Ralston didn’t know how much the Capitol testing costs, but he said it’s paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Clark said the money should be spent on vaccines for first responders and teachers. He said he offered to pay for private testing twice a week so taxpayers wouldn’t have to cover the cost, but Ralston’s office turned him down.
“I went and took the test because I want to get a seat at the table to work for my district,” he said. “But I still stand by what I said, that we’re not using resources how we should.”
Clark said he’s received support from constituents and from people he knows in the medical community. If he’s received any support from his fellow lawmakers, they haven’t done it publicly. He’s been condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Ralston offered a withering assessment of Clark’s anti-testing crusade Thursday.
“I don’t have any patience for people who live in an alternate reality,” the speaker said. “I think the best thing that could happen is, his family needs to seek out some help for him. They need to intervene.”
As he prepared to join him in the House chamber, Sharper also criticized Clark. He said the tests are needed because lawmakers and scores of others are gathered at the Capitol, sometimes in tight quarters. He called Clark’s protest “a selfish act.”
“We’re here to represent the people,” Sharper said. “I think the people want us to be safe.”