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Lawmakers grapple with implementing COVID-19 vaccine on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers grapple with implementing COVID-19 vaccine on Capitol Hill
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Members of Congress are grappling with the question of whether they should be prioritized for receiving a coronavirus vaccine as the first doses begin to be distributed to health care workers across the country.

Lawmakers are wary of appearing to privilege themselves over their constituents, a factor that also made congressional leaders slow to implement a testing regime in the Capitol. At the same time, members of Congress are considered essential to making sure the government continues functioning and are in a position to help build public confidence in the vaccine by taking it themselves.

They also face a higher risk of exposure than the average person during the pandemic because they still have to travel frequently between their districts and Washington, D.C., and congregate together in the Capitol. 

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And many lawmakers — including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report On The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Ky.) — are also above the age of 65, making them among the higher-risk groups already prioritized for vaccination by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A Capitol official said Tuesday that Congress has not yet been notified about how many vaccine doses will be available, meaning that distribution plans are still undetermined at this point.

Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisHouse Republicans request hearing with Capitol Police Board for first time since 1945 Bipartisan lawmakers weigh in on post-pandemic health care costs The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP draws line on taxes; nation braces for Chauvin verdict MORE (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, urged Pelosi to establish a vaccination plan for members and essential staff such as Capitol Police officers.

“As an essential branch of government, it is vital that our institution returns to full functionality and that our Members and essential staff are provided a transparent vaccination plan to not only ensure the continuity of operations, but the health and safety of our committed workforce,” Davis wrote in a letter to Pelosi on Tuesday.

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciWatch live: White House holds briefing with COVID-19 response team CDC director: Vaccinated adolescents can remove masks outdoors at summer camps The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommended on Tuesday that top U.S. officials get vaccinated as soon as possible, including President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE, Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris says Mexico, US can work together to improve quality of life in Northern Triangle Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says 'it is time to pass the baton on to someone else' Harris's uncle discusses COVID-19 surge in India: 'The conditions are pretty bad' MORE, President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE and Vice President Pence.

“I really feel strongly that we should get them vaccinated as soon as we possibly can,” Fauci said on ABC's “Good Morning America.”

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Biden said that he would do it “by the numbers” and publicly, and Pence said that he would as well “in the days ahead.” 

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Tuesday that Trump would take the vaccine “as soon as his medical team determines it’s best” but said he wanted to prioritize front-line health care workers, elderly individuals in long-term care facilities and other vulnerable populations. Trump contracted COVID-19 in October and may still have antibodies immunizing him from the virus.

At least 36 members of the House and Senate have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, while several others have tested positive for antibodies or had presumed cases. 

The Capitol physician’s office already distributes free annual flu vaccines to all members and staff. And starting last month, free COVID-19 testing became available following an order from the D.C. mayor requiring people traveling to Washington to obtain a test. 

While many testing locations across the country have featured long lines with people having to wait days at a time for results, the Capitol’s testing site moves people through quickly and provides results back within 24 hours, if not in the same day. 

Still, lawmakers in both parties had been calling for a testing regime in the Capitol for months before it became reality. Pelosi and McConnell initially turned down an offer in May from the White House to provide rapid testing for Capitol Hill, citing a desire to direct resources to front-line workers. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a Senate floor speech Monday that he would take a vaccine “as soon as it is appropriate and recommended,” but emphasized that “I will not skip the line.”

And while lawmakers are sensitive to any appearance of privilege, some argue that they should be in a position to encourage members of the public to get vaccinated.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Tuesday found that 71 percent of Americans are willing to take a free and safe COVID-19 vaccine. But the poll found a split along party lines: 86 percent of Democrats said they would take the vaccine, compared with 56 percent of Republicans.  

The polling results indicated that vaccine skepticism is highest among Republicans, rural residents, Black adults and essential workers, with people citing concerns about side effects, the role of politics in the development process and the newness of the vaccine.  

McConnell, a polio survivor, said Tuesday that he is “a huge supporter of being vaccinated when you have a substance that you know works.” 

“And so whenever my turn comes, I'm going to be anxious to take the vaccine and do my part to reassure those who are doubtful about this that we really need to get the country vaccinated,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill. “So I think all of us who do have at least some following in the country need to step up, as the former presidents are and as I'm sure people in the entertainment world will as well, to encourage people to do this.”

The District of Columbia government considers members of Congress essential workers, which is also a group considered a priority for early vaccination by the CDC. Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, suggested that certain lawmakers, like those in the line of succession, should be prioritized for protection.

“I think that there will be a number of essential legislators who if they got COVID it could have serious disruptions on American policy and government," Gostin said. 

At the same time, Gostin said, “There’s a real worry in the public that I share, that all of us in the country are going to have to make agonizing choices, really life or death choices, about who gets a vaccine and who doesn’t and it sticks in your throat, the idea that somebody powerful, rich, a celebrity, including politicians, jump the queue and get to the head of the line before everyday Americans. And that is going to happen."

Morgan Chalfant contributed.