Aside from tweet, U.S. Rep. Young, staff remain silent on COVID-19 diagnosis

a person behind a podium talking to a debate moderator
Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young speaks to moderator Lori Townsend at a debate in Anchorage last month. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

A day after 87-year-old U.S. Rep. Don Young said he’d tested positive for COVID-19, the only information available about his condition remained the tweet announcing he’d been infected with the potentially life-threatening illness.

Young, the oldest and longest-serving member of the U.S. House, has proudly declared that he’s never used a computer and doesn’t use his cell phone. But in the tweet Thursday, Young’s official Twitter account said he was feeling strong and working from home in Alaska after testing positive for the virus.

The tweet was issued shortly after Alaska Public Media emailed questions to Young’s office asking whether he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Young’s staff never directly responded to those questions or to phone calls, and they also did not respond to repeated requests for comment Friday.

Young’s opponent in last week’s election, Democratic Party-endorsed independent Alyse Galvin, said the Congressman’s staff could not reach him Friday when she wanted to call him to concede.

Read full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic from Alaska Public Media

“Alyse had to leave a message on his wife’s phone,” said Galvin’s spokeswoman and daughter, Bridget Galvin.

One of the questions still unanswered by Young’s office is the date he tested positive.

That would shed light on when Young’s illness is likely to become most severe, since the most serious phase of the virus tends to come seven to 10 days after people first develop symptoms.

Young’s staff also has not said how many of his campaign or U.S. House staff have also tested positive for COVID-19.

A conservative news website, Must Read Alaska, reported Thursday that “several” people associated with Young’s campaign had tested positive for the virus.

Two others who attended a recent party with Young at an Anchorage restaurant — GOP state Sen. Josh Revak and Larry Burton, the chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan — said Thursday that they were also getting tested. The Anchorage Daily News reported late Friday that Revak had tested positive.

While Young’s advanced age makes him much more likely than younger people to develop severe illness from COVID-19, it’s far from certain that will happen. There are plenty of nursing home patients in their 80s and 90s who have contracted the disease and never develop symptoms, said Dr. Ben Westley, an Anchorage infectious disease specialist.

The likelihood of severe illness depends on whether a person has pre-existing conditions known to contribute to worse outcomes from COVID-19 infection — like heart conditions or diabetes. Young’s staff has not released that information, either.

Across Alaska, as the pandemic sends more staff home, hospitals prepare for the worst

“It is certainly possible that he could have infection and remain asymptomatic and be just fine. And it’s certainly possible that he could get quite sick — the likelihood of getting sick does increase with increasing age,” Westley said in a phone interview Friday. “And that’s really all the information that any of us know.”

Westley also noted that research shows that people who routinely wear masks in public are less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19 if they’re exposed to the virus.

Over the course of the pandemic, Young has been photographed numerous times without a mask, and he’s said he does not require them at events.

“I don’t require anything,” he said in a September radio appearance. “If they want to wear a mask when they come to my campaign events, that’s their business. That’s self-responsibility.”

Young also made headlines early in the pandemic for jokingly calling COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the “beer virus,” though he later said he had underestimated its severity.

In Thursday’s tweet announcing his positive test, Young said he was working from home and asked for privacy “at this time.”

There’s no law requiring Young to disclose any details about his health, said Jerry McBeath, an emeritus professor of political science at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

For now, McBeath said, it’s clear from last week’s election results that Young continues to enjoy the trust of the majority of Alaska voters. And so far, McBeath added, the Congressman has been transparent by revealing his diagnosis — meeting a standard set by President Donald Trump when he announced last month that he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

“If he were to issue no information in the next couple of weeks, which are critical in the care for those with COVID-19, then there would be concerns,” McBeath said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Sarah Erkmann, a public relations consultant who’s worked with a number of Alaska Republicans, agreed, saying that Young took the “appropriate step” of disclosing his positive test on social media. She said it’s likely the Congressman is still being evaluated and may not have more information about his condition yet.

“I still think we can let him have privacy and figure out exactly what his situation is with his doctors and his family. Obviously in the coming days, the public is going to expect to hear more,” she said. “He’s a public figure, he is our only Congressman, and we need him to be working. And so it’s reasonable to expect — and I would fully expect — his office to let Alaskans know how he’s faring.”

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