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Lawmakers who have been among the first Americans to receive the coronavirus vaccine in recent days have been met with backlash and congressional infighting over the ethics and optics of politicians receiving the shots ahead of some frontline workers and at-risk groups.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received the vaccine on Friday. A number of other lawmakers received shots over the weekend including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst.
Republican New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu tweeted that it was “ridiculous” that lawmakers were “cutting in line” and receiving the vaccine ahead of long-term care residents.
“Congress has literally done nothing these last eight months. Now they are cutting the line and getting the vaccine ahead of residents in Long Term Care, nurses, and essential workers who stock our shelves,” Sununu tweeted. “It’s outrageous. And insulting.”
Younger members like Rubio, 49, and Ernst, who is 50 and has said she is “so skeptical” of COVID case numbers, received criticism for being first in line to receive the vaccine, as did Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) who, at 31, is the youngest sitting member of Congress.
Emergency room physician Dr. Jeremy Faust said in a tweet that he and other frontline health care workers at his hospital had not been able to receive the vaccine yet.
“Why any younger members (<65?) should do this now as opposed to closer to when their actual constituents will be eligible, is a bit unclear to me,” Faust wrote.
Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow progressive “Squad” member Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), whose father died from complications of the coronavirus in June, blasted Congress’ priority status in a tweet on Sunday, calling it “shameful” that politicians will receive vaccines ahead of frontline workers.
“It would makes sense if it was age, but unfortunately it’s of importance and its shameful,” she wrote. “We are not more important then frontline workers, teachers etc. who are making sacrifices everyday. Which is why I won’t take it. People who need it most, should get it.”
Ocasio-Cortez defended her decision to receive the vaccine in a tweet saying, “If it was within indiv power to ‘give’ the vaccine to someone else, I would! But according to these protocols, there’s a chance it could have just been stored.”
“There’s also a real risk in this age of misinfo of how it would be weaponized if leaders refused to take it en masse,” she added.
Officials in the White House, Congress and judiciary receive priority for the vaccination under the National Continuity Policy outlined in Presidential Policy Directive 40 in 2016, which calls for any continuity-of-government action taken by the executive branch to be similarly applied in the legislative and judicial branches.
Brian Monahan, the attending physician of Congress and the Supreme Court told lawmakers in a letter Thursday that he strongly recommends they receive the vaccine.
“My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: There is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine,” he wrote. “The benefit far exceeds any small risk.”
Members of Congress received first priority, after which the Office of the Attending Physician will identify “continuity-essential staff members” — likely campus police officers and other essential workers — to receive the shots next.
However, only 16 percent of Americans think elected officials should be among the first in line for the vaccines, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel has recommended that health care workers and people in long-term care facilities be first in line to receive the vaccine, followed by individuals 75 and older and about 30 million “frontline essential workers” such as first responders, teachers and grocery store employees. The third wave of vaccinations will go to other essential workers, people over 65 and younger adults with serious medical conditions, while the general public is expected to receive the vaccine last, potentially beginning in late spring or summer.
Officials hope to distribute the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine to 20 million people by the end of the month. As of Monday, roughly 4.6 million doses had been distributed and about 614,000 doses had been administered.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii) called the priority given to Congress “immoral and bad health policy” and said she would not receive the vaccine until more vulnerable people had had the chance to receive inoculations.
“I urge my colleagues in Congress who are under the age of 65 and healthy to join me,” the 39-year-old lawmaker said.
Representative Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), who is 38, retweeted Gabbard, adding, “I’m with you Tulsi!”
Representatives Brian Mast (R., Fla.) and Chris Jacobs (R., N.Y.) also pushed back against being among the first to receive the vaccine, with the Florida congressman saying Congress “needs to stop treating itself as a special political class.”
Along with Mast, Omar, Gabbard, and Jacobs, Representative Jefferson Van Drew (R.,N.J.), Senator Rand Paul (R.,Ky.) and Representative-elect Nancy Mace (R., S.C.) all announced they would not receive the vaccination before frontline healthcare workers and seniors. Most other lawmakers are taking advantage of their priority status.
Colin Schmitt, a Republican assemblyman in New York, has proposed legislation that would bar elected officials in New York from receiving the vaccination ahead of other priority groups.
“No elected official or politician at any level should be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine before front line workers, first responders, teachers, and vulnerable seniors,” Schmitt said.
“I will be introducing legislation for the new session to tackle this very issue, but call on the Governor and Health Commissioner to administratively implement this rule immediately in the vaccine distribution plan given the news that members of Congress have started to receive vaccines before priority New Yorkers have.”
Vice President Mike Pence, 61, and President-elect Joe Biden, 78, both received their first dose of the vaccine on live television in recent days. President Trump has yet to be vaccinated as his doctors work to figure out the best timing for him to receive a shot after having received an experimental antibody treatment when he contracted the virus in October.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the line, but I want to make sure we demonstrate to the American people that it is safe to take,” Biden said of deciding to take the vaccine.