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Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers, like the rest of the country, are all eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. But President Biden’s speech to Congress last week looked like he was addressing a group that hadn’t gotten a single shot.

With a crowd a fraction of its usual size — and those present all socially distancing and wearing masks — the speech underscored how life on Capitol Hill has been slow to return to normal and how difficult it is to persuade holdouts to get immunized.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) estimated a day after the address that about 75 percent of House members have been vaccinated, a figure unchanged since March.

Until more members get vaccinated, Pelosi said, the House won’t return to pre-pandemic operations.

Unlike for some U.S. adults, access to vaccines hasn’t been a problem for members of Congress, who’ve been able to get shots at their workplace since December.

Roughly 20 percent of the American population, however, remains unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to recent polling.

Partisanship remains the most predictive factor among those reluctant to sign up for vaccines: 43 percent of Republicans in a Monmouth University poll said they’ll likely never get vaccinated, compared to 22 percent of independents and 5 percent of Democrats.

Some lawmakers in both parties initially expressed discomfort in December with getting vaccinated before the shots were more widely available to the public. But now that all U.S. adults are eligible, the only known holdouts are those skeptical of the need.

At the same time, numerous Republicans have been pushing Democratic leaders in recent weeks to end the pandemic restrictions in the Capitol, even though some of them aren’t taking the steps recommended by public health experts to reach that point.  

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), for example, isn’t planning to get a vaccine because he previously tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies last year, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who recovered from COVID-19 still get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“The Pfizer and Moderna trials showed no benefit from the vaccine for those previously infected, so I will not be taking the vaccine,” Massie said in a statement to The Hill.

GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) have voiced similar rationales for not getting vaccinated after they both tested positive last year. Johnson further drew backlash for recently saying he’s getting “highly suspicious” of the “big push to make sure everybody gets the vaccine.”

During Biden’s address on Wednesday, Massie questioned why the president was exempt from rules — punishable by fine — requiring everyone in the House chamber to wear a mask.

“According to Nancy Pelosi’s rules, anyone in the House chamber without a mask, including and especially anyone at the podium, is fined $500 for not wearing a mask. So I guess we can ignore that rule now that the President isn’t following her ridiculous rule,” he tweeted.

The mask rule only applies to members of Congress; a senior Democratic aide noted that former Vice President Mike Pence didn’t wear a mask while speaking either when he presided over proceedings on Jan. 6. 

But Democratic leaders remain hesitant to lift social distancing and mask requirements while they’re still unsure of how many lawmakers are vaccinated.

Vaccinations among congressional staff, meanwhile, are rising after the Capitol physician began making shots more widely available to them in mid-March. But not all staff are fully immunized yet under the Pfizer and Moderna two-shot regimens.

That’s what prompted Capitol officials to not only require masks and limit capacity at Biden’s address, but also require proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the prior 48 hours.

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner, argued that Biden’s address could have served as an opportunity for lawmakers to promote confidence in vaccines. If vaccination had been a requirement for all attendees, she suggested, they could have gathered more closely and without masks to show Americans tuning in the rewards of getting vaccinated.

“I think that would have been another way of demonstrating confidence in the vaccines, as well as a path forward,” Wen said.

At this point, she argued, it would be more helpful for Biden and congressional leaders who are vaccinated to start demonstrating what life can be like when everyone in a room is vaccinated to help convince people on the fence.

“I actually think that it undermines the efficacy of the vaccines if people aren’t more proactive about resuming their lives in a very public way,” Wen said.

The current CDC guidance green-lights vaccinated people gathering together indoors without masks or distancing. Fully vaccinated people can also gather outdoors without masks, except in crowded venues. 

But Pelosi said there’s no way of requiring lawmakers to get vaccinated or of identifying the holdouts.

“We cannot require someone to be vaccinated. That’s just not what we can do. It is a matter of privacy to know who is or who isn’t. I can’t go to the Capitol Physician and say, ‘Give me the names of people who aren’t vaccinated, so I can go encourage them or make it known to others to encourage them to be vaccinated,’’ Pelosi said.

Aside from some of their holdout cohorts, many Republicans are actively promoting vaccines. Both House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), were among the first to get vaccinated. And numerous Republicans, including several who work as physicians, have been urging constituents in recent days to sign up for vaccine appointments on social media.

Even with roughly a quarter of lawmakers still unvaccinated, Congress is no longer the COVID-19 hot spot it once was.

No lawmakers have publicly revealed positive tests for the virus since late January, when Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said he tested positive despite getting both vaccine shots. Lynch’s diagnosis came during a stretch of more than three dozen lawmakers testing positive during the nation’s winter peak of COVID-19.

Despite the vaccinations and lack of lawmakers testing positive in recent months, House Democratic leaders have only made one small step toward reducing pandemic restrictions: Each socially distanced House floor vote is now capped at 30 minutes instead of 45.

“The Republicans come up to me and say, ‘Let’s shorten the time for votes.  Let’s shorten the time for votes.’ I say, ‘Well, tell your friends to get vaccinated.’ That would help. That would help a lot,” Pelosi said.

–Updated at 10:45 a.m.

Tags Biden address to Congress Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 vaccine Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul Ron Johnson Stephen Lynch Thomas Massie Vaccination Vaccine hesitancy
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