Chesapeake Mayor Rick West got his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine earlier this week.
His Virginia Beach counterpart, Bobby Dyer, plans to get it as soon as he can secure an appointment.
Dyer and West qualify for the vaccine due to their ages: West is 68 and Dyer 70.
But they and all other council members are also eligible under Virginia’s Phase 1b of the vaccine distribution plan — they are considered essential workers needed to maintain continuity of government, according to Larry Hill, a spokesperson for the Health Department.
West said getting the vaccine is not only important to running their cities, but demonstrates how safe it is.
Political scientists say vaccinated public officials have faced some backlash, especially when doses go to elected leaders’ staff members. These experts agree there’s a moral dilemma: get the vaccine as a city leader or avoid public condemnation.
West said before his appointment at Chesapeake Regional Healthcare’s Lifestyle Center, he grappled with this. Ultimately, he said he let the process play out until he got a call to get an appointment.
“To think of me as a mayor giving somebody COVID, the outfall to that would be far worse than anybody who thinks he did it too soon,” West said.
Dyer also initially had concerns about appearing to jump the line. He signed up a couple of days after he became eligible, but has not received an appointment yet.
People can pre-register for a vaccination on Virginia Beach’s city portal, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigns and prioritizes appointments. Over the coming weeks and months, those who pre-register will be invited to select an appointment time as the vaccine stock becomes available. Dyer said he will follow protocols.
“I am going through the same process as everyone,” Dyer said. “I did not skip to the front of the line.”
But at least two other elected officials with an opportunity to get the shot told the Virginian-Pilot they will wait.
Of all the public officials in Hampton Roads, the Pilot so far has only been able to confirm that three of 11 Virginia Beach council members and two of nine in Chesapeake have received the vaccine.
Chesapeake Councilwoman Debbie Ritter, 72, said she plans to get hers soon.
Virginia Beach Councilman Louis Jones, 84, also qualified because of his age and his profession as a funeral home owner. He said he has received the first vaccine.
Jones, the oldest person on the council, said he hoped all council members would get the vaccine so the council could resume in-person meetings. He will receive his second shot in mid-February.
All five of the Virginia Beach council members under the age of 65 declined to reveal if they had received the vaccine or did not respond to inquiries about vaccinations.
“My thinking is that it is important for us to have them as an example for the public so they know the political leadership is taking the pandemic seriously,” Jones said. “I don’t see any reason why council members wouldn’t disclose that they had received the vaccine. But it is their personal business so I am not telling other council people what I think they ought to do.”
Dyer said not holding closed session meetings has prevented the council from receiving sensitive legal briefings or discussing appointments to boards.
Councilman John Moss received the vaccine Monday. He posted about it on his Facebook page and said he fielded many questions from the public about getting the shot before others. He said it comes down to continuity of government. The city registered him to receive the vaccine, but he said he did not request any preferential treatment.
“I qualified for a shot and stood in line two-plus hours just like everyone else,” Moss said. “I didn’t do anything special to push myself up in the queue.”
Moss, 66, who contracted COVID-19 in the fall, said the decision to get the shot was easy.
“I feel like I owe it to my wife and kids not to leave them alone because I didn’t get the shot,” Moss said. “It is a risk I am not willing to take.”
Two Chesapeake city council members who said they have not been vaccinated cited myriad reasons for their decisions, from not being in a high-risk health category to continuing to follow social distancing and mask-wearing policies. They said if they were to get sick, the business of the city could go on with the remaining council members.
“I have no issue vaccinating as many people as possible,” said Chesapeake Councilman Don Carey, who at 33 is the youngest on council. He said he has no plans to get vaccinated in the near future. “But as many people as possible doesn’t mean everybody. It means people in vulnerable positions first.”
Carey cited his younger age and good health — he’s a former NFL player — as well as how he and his wife play it safe by wearing masks, washing their hands and not risking going out much.
One other Chesapeake council member, Robert Ike, 60, said he did not yet receive a dose, saying older people should go ahead of him.
“In my heart of hearts, I would much rather stand back and wait for everybody who’s at a greater risk than me,” Ike said.
Carey questioned the idea that the public would look to elected officials to gauge the safety of the vaccines. He pointed to how millions of Americans have been vaccinated so far, a better source of proof than the Chesapeake City Council. He also said people should look to medical professionals.
Councilwoman Ella Ward, 74, said she got her dose earlier this week. Attempts to reach the other council members were not successful.
Suffering from a trust factor
Public officials who receive vaccines have been seeing more backlash, some of it on various social media platforms, said Benjamin Melusky, an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University.
As the vaccine rollout expanded from the president to members of Congress and then members of their staffs, the perception began that they were skipping ahead, Melusky said.
He said some governors — such as those in Massachusetts and New Hampshire — said they would wait to be vaccinated, pointing to federal guidelines that said those most exposed or vulnerable to the disease should go first.
“There’s a certain element of risk and reward to it at the end of the day,” Melusky said. “For every public official who doesn’t get it, there’s probably four or five who probably will go get it.”
Whether those public officials should be obligated to tell the public is a tricky question given some of the backlash. It could also be redundant since health officials have included public officials into Phase 1b.
He also questioned how useful it is for public officials to demonstrate the vaccines’ safety.
“Politicians already suffer from a trust factor,” he said. “You could make the argument that perhaps inoculating people like celebrities, religious leaders and sports figures can actually do more to boost confidence in the vaccine.”
In a video shared on Chesapeake Regional Healthcare’s Facebook page, West said it’s “imperative” to get the vaccine to help prevent others from getting sick and to protect your own health.
“I encourage anyone in America to get this shot when you have an opportunity,” he said. “Don’t throw away your shot.”
Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alissa Skelton, 757-995-9043, email@example.com.