Congress divided over whether they will be receiving the swine flu vaccine

Democratic and Republican lawmakers cannot agree on whether to get the swine flu vaccine even after this week’s first reported case of a member of Congress catching the illness.

Some, like Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), are choosing not to get vaccinated, at least not immediately. Others, like Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), want it but can’t get it. She tried, but is not among the vulnerable categories that have first call on limited supplies.

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The debate on Capitol Hill mirrors one taking place all across the country, as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans increasingly worried that they or a member of their family will contract the H1N1 virus but also that six in 10 are not planning to get the vaccine.

The Office of the Attending Physician (OAP) began vaccinating the most vulnerable members and staffers this week as instances of swine flu spread throughout the campus from House pages to lawmakers. Members are not given preferential treatment.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) this week was the first lawmaker to admit to having swine flu. His announcement came as 10 House pages, who have daily interaction with members, also reported having flu-like symptoms.

That hasn’t rattled Boehner, who said he wasn’t too concerned about getting vaccinated and that neither he nor his family had shown any symptoms.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said in an interview.

But Velazquez paid a visit to the OAP on Wednesday to see when she would be eligible to receive the vaccination. The OAP told her that hers was not “a target group yet,” she said. The OAP did not give her a firm timeline for when she could get vaccinated but said that it would let her know.

Production of the vaccine has lagged behind goals laid out earlier in the year by federal officials, with only 15 million doses available to date. Health officials hope to have 50 million by the middle of November and 150 million by December.

In the meantime, Capitol Hill doctors are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines by limiting their doses to pregnant women, children under 5, health professionals and people with pre-existing medical conditions.

While Walden is officially the first member to contract the virus, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) suspects he may have already had the swine flu.

Taylor said for several weeks last month he suffered from all the symptoms — fever, low energy and a bad cough. He hopes that by getting sick once already this season, he will be in the clear for the rest of the year.

Based on that, Taylor does not plan to get vaccinated.

“There were times when I thought I was coughing up a lung,” Taylor said. “But the biggest thing was just having no energy. I’m hoping that now that I’ve had it once that I won’t be getting it again.”

Shortly after the U.S. began to report instances of people infected with the swine flu in the spring, the office of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) oversaw the installation of nearly 400 hand-sanitizer stations throughout the Capitol complex to “prevent the spread of germs.” It is not planning to buy any more.

“We continue to assess the need for additional hand-sanitizing stations, and maintain those now in service, but are not planning to purchase large quantities of new stations at this time,” said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the AoC.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he hasn’t taken many precautions to getting the virus, other than the occasional squirt of hand sanitizer.

“I pay a little more attention to those machines as I go by them, but other than that, no,” he said, adding that he wasn’t planning on getting vaccinated.

“I’m not fearful of vaccinations or anything, but probably not,” he said.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he got the seasonal flu shot but was not too concerned about getting the H1N1 vaccine. He said he was feeling poorly recently and was slightly concerned that it could be flu-related, but his doctor said it was just a bad cold.

Some members are concerned about their children, who fall into one of the CDC’s target groups.

Rep. Kevin Brady’s (R-Texas) wife had their two children, who are both in elementary school, vaccinated. And while he has not gotten the vaccination, he said he plans to.

Among other guidelines, the CDC advises that people not use their hands to cover a sneeze. People tend to touch things afterward prior to washing their hands, and the virus is spread easily that way. Instead, people are instructed to sneeze into their arm.

But Brady’s not too sure that he’ll be able to abide by those guidelines.

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“I just heard about that — you’re supposed to sneeze into your arm. I’m not going to break that habit,” he said with a chuckle.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has also been trying to break some of his less-than-hygienic habits.

“One thing I’ve been trying to be very careful of is putting my hands close to my face,” he said. “It’s a bad habit that’s tough to break.”

Cuellar said he’s been extra vigilant with his wife and two young girls to get them to wash their hands more than usual. He also said he has not gotten vaccinated but is planning to.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said he’s also been advocating to everyone to wash their hands as much as possible, especially his colleagues who, as public figures, shake the hands of a lot of people every month.

“My doctor told me years ago, if you shake so many hands, wash your hands. But other than that I’m not doing a whole lot. I’m still flying on airplanes,” he said, adding that he hasn’t started shaking hands any less than usual.

Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio) said he knows people in his district who have gotten the virus but that he’s still got a clean bill of health.

He’s also still got his sense of humor.

Asked what precautions he’s taken to remain healthy, the freshman said, “just washing my hands. Oh, and I stopped sneezing on people.”