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Congress Gets COVID-19 Vaccine, But Members Fight Over Who Should Have Priority

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot from Brian Monahan, the attending physician for the U.S. Congress, last week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot from Brian Monahan, the attending physician for the U.S. Congress, last week.

Top leaders and rank-and-file members of Congress are taking part in the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations, a move that could accelerate plans for Congress to return to business as usual. But not all lawmakers agree on who should get priority as millions of Americans in high-risk groups still await their turn.

The Capitol's attending physician, Brian Monahan, alerted its more than 500 lawmakers this month that they're now eligible to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under continuity-of-government requirements.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy were among those with first dibs. Other members soon followed suit, saying it could inspire public confidence in the vaccine.

"Our job is to make sure the vaccine isn't politicized the way masks were politicized," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a Twitter exchange after getting her vaccine.

McConnell, who was treated for polio as a child, repeatedly cites public opinion polls showing reticence among the public about the vaccine, and he emphasizes the importance of getting inoculated.

"It took decades to develop the polio vaccine. This vaccine was developed in under a year, a modern medical miracle, and we need to take the vaccine," McConnell said in an interview on Fox News.

The efforts could also stem the flow of coronavirus cases linked to Congress, where more than 270 individuals — including 50 lawmakers — have become infected during the pandemic.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx and California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass were among the first wave of members to get the vaccine.

"When public health officials say it's your turn to get a vaccine, roll up your sleeves — I'll be doing the same when my turn arrives," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who was infected with the coronavirus this year, said on the Senate floor on Monday. "Getting immunized is the only way we'll beat the virus and get back to the normal way of American life."

The pandemic has also disrupted the work of Congress, from floor activity to committee hearings.

Lawmakers "will be provided with a specific number of COVID19 vaccine doses to meet long-standing requirements for continuity of government operations," Monahan, the Capitol's attending physician, wrote in a Dec. 17 note to members.

COVID-19 vaccine divides members on who should get it now

While members such as Ocasio-Cortez have said getting the vaccine will encourage others to follow suit, they've faced criticism from a smaller minority of colleagues such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a critic of mask mandates.

Paul, who was infected with the coronavirus early on during the pandemic, says younger members shouldn't take part now, while those who have had COVID-19 should be "last in line."

"I think it would be unconscionable for somebody who's had it to get in front of somebody who hasn't had it to take a vaccine," Paul told a Capitol Hill pool reporter on Monday. "I think it's unconscionable for [Ocasio-Cortez] ... to be smiling gleefully and getting the vaccine when you got 85-year-old people in nursing homes who haven't gotten it."

Paul later tweeted his attack of Ocasio-Cortez, triggering a heated exchange.

Ocasio-Cortez responded that "maybe if the GOP hadn't spent so much time undermining public faith" in science and mask usage for COVID-19, she wouldn't have to weigh in on potential misinformation.

For his part, Brown also used his turn to get the vaccine to say it sends a "bipartisan message" that the vaccine is safe and critical for protecting others.

"Getting this vaccine isn't a partisan issue — it's patriotic," Brown said in a statement.

Still, other members disagree. And that includes Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a member of the "Squad" with Ocasio-Cortez and two other House Democrats.

Omar lost her father to COVID-19 this year.

"We are not more important then [sic] frontline workers, teachers etc. who are making sacrifices everyday," Omar tweeted. "Which is why I won't take it. People who need it most, should get it. Full stop."

Others are taking their opposition to getting the vaccine further, saying they don't trust it.

"I'm more concerned about the safety of the vaccine than I am the side effects of the disease," Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., told Fox Business.

This, as many of his GOP colleagues laud the vaccine, including McCarthy, who tie its success to President Trump.

Trump "kept his promise!" McCarthy said on Twitter after his vaccine shot.

Vaccines for Capitol Hill workers

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., has a new mission: develop a plan for workers and other support staff for Congress to get the new vaccine as well.

The top Republican of the House Administration Committee, which oversees such efforts, is urging Pelosi and the panel's Democratic chair, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, to create a plan soon.

"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 said in a Dec. 14 letter to Pelosi and Lofgren.

This year, Davis and McCarthy joined forces to urge Pelosi to implement a widespread testing program. An on-site rapid-testing center was finally installed at the Capitol in November, several months into the pandemic, after Pelosi and McConnell turned down offers from the administration for testing capacity. The administration had offered only 1,000 tests — a drop in the bucket for the large Capitol complex. And Pelosi and McConnell said that members shouldn't go ahead of front-line workers at a time when tests were sparse for the public.

Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican aides have declined to detail a future vaccine plan for the larger Capitol complex, saying those details remain to be determined.

However, this month's passage of a massive government funding bill that includes coronavirus relief designates $5 million for the attending physician's office to combat COVID-19. That includes testing and potentially could support future expansion of vaccine efforts.

Davis tells leaders that now is an opportunity for the House to redo its approach to COVID-19 and respond quickly with vaccines for the larger Capitol complex. But that remains a challenge, because that includes a legislative branch workforce of about 20,000.

"I encourage you to take strong, decisive action in working with our institutional partners to create, communicate, and implement a vaccination distribution plan for the House's essential workers and Members," Davis said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.