Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office on Thursday confirmed that the 89-year-old California lawmaker’s complications from shingles were far more serious than previously known.
The disclosure came following a report by the New York Times revealing that Feinstein’s shingles had spread to her face and neck, “causing vision and balance impairments and facial paralysis known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome” and had brought on a previously unreported case of encephalitis, a rare but potentially debilitating complication that causes inflammation of the brain.
Adam Russell, a spokesman for Feinstein, said in a statement that the encephalitis “resolved itself shortly after she was released from the hospital in March.” She continues to have complications from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, Russell added in the statement, which came after the Times story was published.
Here’s everything we know about Feinstein’s health and its impact on her work in the Senate, culled from original reporting and Yahoo News partners including the Times, Washington Post and others.
How rare are Feinstein’s complications?
Very. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shingles affects a third of Americans, but Ramsay Hunt syndrome and encephalitis are far less common and can be severe.
Michael Wilson, a doctor who specializes in encephalitis at the University of California at San Francisco, told the Washington Post that the risk for post-shingles encephalitis is about “one in a thousand.”
Encephalitis symptoms include “fever, headache, sensitivity to light or sound, neck stiffness, or even seizures and loss of consciousness,” the paper said.
Ramsay Hunt syndrome — which is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles — is also very rare. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s more common in older adults, typically affecting people older than 60.
But younger people can get it too. Last year, Justin Bieber, 29, announced he was suffering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which paralyzed one side of his face and forced him to postpone his tour.
How long was Feinstein gone?
Feinstein, who sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, returned to Washington last week after months away from the Senate as she recovered from her case of shingles, which was diagnosed in February. In the same month, the six-term California Democrat announced she will not seek reelection in 2024.
Her extended leave caused concern among Democrats about missed votes, and prompted numerous calls for her to resign. Her absence from the judiciary committee held up President Biden’s judicial appointees and undercut the panel’s ability to issue subpoenas investigating the numerous reports of Supreme Court corruption.
Feinstein said last month that her return was “delayed due to continued complications” from her shingles diagnosis and that she had not been cleared to travel by her doctors.
She also asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to “allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve” on the panel “until I’m able to resume my committee work.”
What happened when she returned to work?
When she did finally return to Capitol Hill, she appeared to be remarkably frail.
“Using a wheelchair, with the left side of her face frozen and one eye nearly shut, she seemed disoriented as an aide steered her through the marble corridors of the Senate, complaining audibly that something was stuck in her eye,” the Times reported.
And when speaking with a small group of reporters a few days later, Feinstein appeared to be confused when asked about the well wishes she’d received from her Senate colleagues since her return.
“I haven’t been gone,” she said, per the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve been here. I’ve been voting. Please, either know or don’t know.”
The exchange did little to quell the calls for Feinstein to resign, which she has resisted.
“The senator still sees the job as her calling and is no more receptive to a conversation about stepping aside than she was in 2018, when she decided to seek another term despite questions about her mental acuity,” the New York Times said, adding: “People close to her joke privately that perhaps when Feinstein is dead, she will start to consider resigning.”
“I’m back in Washington, voting and attending committee meetings while I recover from complications related to a shingles diagnosis,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday. “I continue to work and get results for California.”
Who’s running to replace her?
Feinstein is not running for reelection next year and three prominent Democratic representatives are vying to replace her.
Barbara Lee, 76, has served in Congress since 1998, representing the San Francisco Bay Area. Lee was the only member of Congress not to vote for the authorization of military force following the Sept. 11 attacks and has a slew of endorsements from progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus and top California officials, like the state attorney general and the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Katie Porter, 49, came into Congress in what has been described as the 2018 “blue wave” of Democratic progressives, representing an Orange County district that is more competitive than those represented by her Senate rivals. Upon entering Congress, she quickly established a reputation as a tough questioner in committee hearings. Porter recently released a memoir and has earned the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who was her professor at Harvard Law School.
Adam Schiff, 62, has represented a Los Angeles-area district since 2001 and was the lead manager for former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. The former House Intelligence chairman has received the endorsement of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and nearly two dozen other California House members, in addition to holding a significant fundraising advantage over his opponents.