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Growing number of lawmakers decline early access to COVID-19 vaccine

A small but growing number of lawmakers are declining early access to a COVID-19 vaccine that’s being offered to them under continuity of government policies. 

A handful of lawmakers in both parties, including Reps. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Jefferson Van Drew (R-N.J.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and incoming Rep.-elect Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), all made a point of announcing they would refuse a vaccine before all front-line health care workers and seniors get inoculated. 

Most other lawmakers are getting their first of two doses of the vaccine and urging others to follow suit, arguing it’s necessary to ensure continuity of government in the pandemic. 

But some are wary of the optics of representatives getting priority access to a vaccine and would rather wait until it’s widely available to the public.

“I’m not saying that I have any type of aversion to it. It’s just a personal stance that if you’re a leader, you eat last,” Mast told The Hill.

“Symbols matter in life,” Mast said. “The powerful symbol can be, ‘Hey listen, we’re going to make sure that we take care of the people first.’ …‘You first. You first with the legislation, you first with the relief, you first with the vaccination, you first with everything else.’ ” 

The Capitol physician’s office received doses specifically set aside for Congress and began distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to lawmakers late last week under continuity of government policies.

Officials serving in the executive branch and Supreme Court, as well as other top government leaders like Vice President Pence and President-elect Joe Biden are also getting doses, along with health care workers across the nation in recent days.

Once members of Congress are vaccinated, the Capitol physician’s office will begin offering vaccines to “continuity-essential” staff on Capitol Hill. 

Members of Congress face a higher risk of virus exposure and of transmitting it to others due to their weekly travel from all over the country to congregate together in the Capitol and frequent interactions with constituents. Many lawmakers are also above the age of 65, making them at a higher risk of developing severe effects from COVID-19.

At least 42 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. About half of those cases have been since November alone during the height of the pandemic. 

Two members of Congress — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate president pro tempore — are also second and third, respectively, in the presidential line of succession. Pelosi received her first vaccine dose on Friday, while Grassley had not yet as of Monday but plans to get it.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the timing wasn’t ideal for them to be receiving the vaccine before Congress had passed a long-stalled coronavirus relief package on Monday. 

The package includes funding for national vaccine distribution, Paycheck Protection Program aid for small businesses, unemployment insurance, housing assistance and direct checks of up to $600 per eligible person.

“Well, it’s certainly embarrassing and discouraging that it’s taken us eight months since we passed the CARES Act to finally get relief,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “I mean, if you’re busy feeling really guilty about not helping the hundreds of millions of Americans who needed the help and then you’re going to go get the vaccine? But yeah, I think somebody that’s voted against all the packages should feel guilty right now.”

Beyer, 70, was among the first rank-and-file members of Congress to receive a vaccine on Friday. He reported no side effects and said he wanted to set an example for others.

“I really want to make sure we’re setting the right example. That we’re doing everything we can to encourage people to get the vaccine. First, for their health, and second, for the herd immunity of the country,” Beyer said.

In addition to Pelosi, all of the other top congressional leaders in both parties — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — received their first vaccine doses in recent days and shared their experiences on social media.

Rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties have followed suit. Progressive superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), 31, posted several tweets describing the vaccination experience to her nearly 11 million Twitter followers and explaining how the vaccine works.

But one of her closest allies — Omar, whose father died from COVID-19 this year — called it “shameful” that members of Congress were being prioritized for vaccination. 

“It would make sense if it was age, but unfortunately it’s of importance and it’s shameful. We are not more important [than] 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. Full stop,” Omar tweeted.

Gabbard, who is retiring and will no longer be a member of Congress after Jan. 3, called on her colleagues under the age of 65 to wait to get vaccinated until seniors get it. 

“I had planned to get the vaccine but will now stand in solidarity with our seniors by not doing so until THEY can. I urge my colleagues who are under 65 and healthy to join me,” Gabbard tweeted on Monday. 

And Paul, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, tweeted on Monday that it is “inappropriate for me – who has already gotten the virus/has immunity – to get in front of elderly/healthcare workers.” 

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), said that he wouldn’t get the vaccine because of concerns over its safety. 

But a bipartisan majority of lawmakers so far argue that it’s in their interest to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

“Look, this is what responsible adults do. They get the vaccine when they can,” Beyer said.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Brian Mast Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Ilhan Omar Jeff Van Drew Joe Biden Ken Buck Kevin McCarthy Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul Tulsi Gabbard Vaccine

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