Lawmakers are fighting over the ethics of taking a COVID-19 vaccine before healthcare workers and the elderly

Eliza Relman
US Vice President Mike Pence receives the COVID-19 vaccine in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, December 18, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US Vice President Mike Pence receives the COVID-19 vaccine on December 18, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
  • A handful of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress are objecting to their colleagues receiving the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of more vulnerable populations. 

  • The attending physician of Congress and the Supreme Court, Brian Monahan, has told members of Congress that "there is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine." 

  • Public health experts told Insider that members of Congress have a responsibility to be an example for their constituents and to boost confidence in the vaccine by taking it immediately. 

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A handful of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress are loudly objecting to the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout process, which makes certain politicians a priority to receive a vaccine for the purpose of government continuity and national security. 

The National Security Council has determined that an array of both elected and unelected officials should be vaccinated as soon as possible. But some lawmakers argue that they shouldn't get access to the vaccine before more vulnerable groups do, even as many of their colleagues and public health experts stress the importance of Congress setting an example for the public by taking the vaccine. 

The attending physician of Congress and the Supreme Court, Brian Monahan, announced last Thursday that members of Congress would receive a tranche of doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine and urged officials to get it immediately. 

"My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: There is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine," he wrote in a letter to Congress. "The benefit far exceeds any small risk."

After the lawmakers are all given the chance to be vaccinated, other "continuity-essential staff members" on Capitol Hill will be offered the vaccine, but this doesn't include spouses and family members of lawmakers. So far, about 50 members of the House and Senate - who are required to travel to Washington, DC, regularly - have been infected with the virus. 

A slew of Republican lawmakers and activists, led by President Donald Trump, have spent months spreading misinformation about the severity of COVID-19 and actively undermined efforts to contain the virus. There is widespread and longstanding skepticism and opposition to vaccines across a broad swath of the US population.

As many as half of Americans are unsure about taking a COVID-19 vaccine or say they won't get it, according to recent polling by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in late November found increasing confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines as the rollout continues.

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Some top government officials and lawmakers, including President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have also received the vaccine over the last few days.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, got the vaccine on Tuesday and has urged Trump to be vaccinated as well. White House officials have said Trump is holding off on getting the vaccine because he was given an experimental antibody treatment earlier this fall after he contracted COVID-19. 

'People have come to expect that things may be unfair'

Some lawmakers have made a concerted effort to educate the public about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and argued that officials should set an example for skeptical Americans. 

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a video of herself receiving the vaccine over the weekend and explained that she wanted to boost public confidence in the vaccine given the pervasive nature of misinformation that's been spread about COVID-19. She answered questions about the vaccines and explained the basic science behind it to her millions of social media followers. 

"I would would never, ever ask you to do something I wasn't willing to do myself," the 31-year old wrote. 

But some lawmakers have received pushback for taking the vaccine early. Few Americans - about 16%, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll - think that elected officials should get access to the vaccine before higher-risk groups. 

Critics have pointed to the hypocrisy of many Republicans who downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19 and undermined efforts to stem the spread being among the first Americans to receive the vaccine. 

Sen. Joni Erst, an Iowa Republican, has faced widespread backlash for receiving the vaccine on Sunday after spending months casting doubt on COVID-19 deaths and undermining public health guidance. Ernst has pushed the baseless claim, promoted by QAnon conspiracy theorists, that healthcare providers were inflating the coronavirus death toll in order to boost their revenue. And she falsely suggested in September that under 10,000 Americans had died of the virus, when more than 180,000 Americans had been killed by COVID-19 at the time.

Petula Dvorak, a columnist for The Washington Post, compared certain lawmakers getting special access to the vaccine to VIP passengers aboard the Titanic escaping early on lifeboats before the ship sunk. 

"The very folks who downplayed the virus, partied maskless at the White House and called the coronavirus a hoax created to hurt President Trump are now getting the vaccine ahead of front-line and essential workers, and even the vulnerable residents in long-term-care facilities," she wrote.

Karen Emmons, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, said members of Congress should take a variety of factors - the power of their example, national security, and their own level of risk - into account when deciding when to be vaccinated in order to maximally benefit public health. She noted that Americans will likely be particularly sensitive to how they respond as long as access to the vaccine remains limited. 

"In situations of scarcity, people have come to expect that things may be unfair," Emmons told Insider. "If [lawmakers] deem that the right choice is to be vaccinated now, they could double-down on other ways to show their support for our frontline and health care workers who remain at risk until they can be vaccinated."

GettyImages rand paul
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to the media on July 21, 2020. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Bipartisan division over access to the COVID-19 vaccine

Still, a handful of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, who are likely wary of public criticism, have announced that they won't take the vaccine immediately. 

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has rejected mask-wearing and social distancing, attacked his colleagues, particularly "young healthy" people like Ocasio-Cortez, for taking the vaccine.

"It is inappropriate for me - who has already gotten the virus/has immunity - to get in front of elderly/healthcare workers," Paul tweeted on Monday about his decision not to immediately get the vaccine. "Same goes for AOC or any young healthy person. They should be among last, not first."

Ocasio-Cortez hit back at the senator, arguing that lawmakers must "make sure the vaccine isn't politicized the way masks were politicized" and she blamed Republicans like Paul for spreading disinformation about the virus. 

A handful of Democrats have sided with Paul. On Sunday, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota progressive closely aligned with Ocasio-Cortez, argued that it's "shameful" for members of Congress to take the vaccine ahead of frontline workers. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, similarly urged her colleagues to "stand in solidarity with our seniors by not [getting the vaccine] until THEY can." 

AOC vaccine
In a photo posted to Twitter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed her receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Twitter

But there is broad mainstream consensus, even among Republicans, that lawmakers should follow the national security directive. 

The two other members of the self-named "Squad" of freshman congresswomen, which includes Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, have received the vaccine. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN that she "wanted to set an example" for Black Americans who might be concerned about the safety of the vaccine. 

"Continuity of government and the travel required for members of Congress justify early vaccinations," Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political strategist, told Insider. "I hope members of Congress take their responsibility as elected officials seriously and take advantage of the vaccine, to build public confidence in its safety and efficacy." 

Dr. Demetrios Kyriacou, an epidemiology professor at Northwestern University, said members of Congress should set an example for communities where anti-vaccine sentiment runs high. He pointed out that the conservative communities that Republican lawmakers represent might be most unconvinced by the safety of the vaccine and most in need of role modeling. 

"Congressmen and congresswomen should not wait," Kyriacou told Insider. "I think it is very important, especially among the more conservative sections of our population as this group tends to be more reluctant to get vaccinated. In addition, Black and Hispanic lawmakers should get vaccinated publicly to encourage these sections of our population to also get vaccinated."

Oma Seddiq contributed to this report.

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