Congress to receive first batch of Covid-19 vaccines but uncertainty lingers

Congress to receive first batch of Covid-19 vaccines but uncertainty lingersDecember 18, 2020

Congress will receive a limited batch of the coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, according to multiple sources, marking a major development for lawmakers and frontline workers in a Capitol complex that has battled dozens of cases this year.

Vaccines for federal agencies and officials across Washington have been arriving at Walter Reed Medical Center in recent days, and thousands of doses are expected to be designated for the House and Senate, though congressional leadership offices said they have no information to provide.

And in another sign that vaccinations are imminent on the Hill, the Capitol physician has begun privately informing some members and staff that he has requested vaccines and that his office is making some preparations, including setting up freezer storage.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell obtained by POLITICO, Capitol Physician Brian Monahan wrote that Congress will receive “a specific number of COVID 19 vaccine doses to meet longstanding requirements for continuity of government operations.”

“The small number of COVID 19 vaccines we will be provided reflects a fraction of the first tranche of vaccines as it is distributed throughout the country,” Monahan added.

McConnell, a childhood polio survivor, said in a statement Thursday he planned to take the vaccine “in the coming days,” but offered no other details.

“Because of government continuity requirements, I have been informed by the Office of the Attending Physician that I am eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, which I will accept,” he said.

Speculation had been rising in the Capitol this week as lawmakers — many of whom are older and at higher risk — await word of when they will receive vaccines as part of the nationwide effort. But even as lawmakers are poised to become the latest leg in a historic vaccination campaign, there’s still little certainty about how and when the distribution process will work in a place as sprawling as the U.S. Congress.

Congressional leaders are only just beginning to tackle the complicated task of allocating doses among hundreds of lawmakers and essential building workers. The rollout is also fraught with political challenges amid the nationwide scramble to divvy up a limited supply of vaccines in a fair way, while also encouraging public figures to take the vaccine as a show of confidence.

The limited number of doses that will soon arrive on Capitol Hill is only the first round of potentially several. But the lack of a Hill distribution plan so far has frustrated some members, who say they have received zero guidance from leadership or the Capitol physician about when they’ll receive the first round of doses — let alone how many or who should get it first. Further complicating matters is that lawmakers, like anyone who receives the vaccine, will need two doses.

Some say they hope Congress doesn’t drag its feet on a vaccination program like it did with implementing a widespread testing regime.

“I hope we don’t make the same mistake on vaccines that we made on testing, which is to wait until a number of people have needlessly had this … before we decide whether or not we’re going to deal with this,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership who chairs the Rules Committee.

During a closed-door briefing on “Operation Warp Speed” Thursday, the topic of how and when lawmakers would be vaccinated didn’t come up at all, according to one member who attended the session.

Meanwhile, federal officials are racing to distribute vaccines to top government officials. Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden will both be getting vaccines within days.

The arrival of the vaccine on Capitol Hill — where cases continue to climb — could force lawmakers into a tricky political and personal dilemma. Members will want to avoid any perception that high-ranking government officials are getting special treatment. Just 16 percent of the public thinks elected officials should be among the first in line for the vaccines, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.

But many lawmakers also recognize that they and their colleagues are at high-risk because of the nature of their jobs, which requires traveling back and forth to Washington each week. And top congressional officials say taking the vaccine would also send an important signal to the American people that it’s safe.

“We do a lot, we see a lot of people, and we have to do business,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. “It’s a difficult job. … If the vaccine is there, I think we should take it.”

“I don’t want to break the line,” added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip, while also noting that lawmakers travel more frequently than most Americans. “And I think because of that vulnerability, it should be taken into consideration.”

It’s also an issue of the continuity of government: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are second and third in line to the presidency, behind the vice president. And Grassley, 87, was already briefly sidelined from the Senate after he contracted the virus last month, though he showed no symptoms.

Party leaders wrestled with concerns over optics earlier this year over implementing widespread coronavirus testing in the Capitol, which didn’t arrive in the building until last month.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, has been pressing Pelosi to unveil an action plan for vaccines before they arrive on Capitol Hill — particularly for front-line workers, which include police officers and custodians. But so far, his calls have gone unanswered.

“Why in the world can’t [Pelosi] and her team begin to develop a vaccine plan for the essential workers that make the House operational?” Davis said. “It was a failure to not address testing when it became more available. … And if they follow the exact same process in regards to vaccinations, then yes, it will be a failure again until they’re forced to do it.”

Yet Republicans continue to disparage House Democrats for holding virtual meetings and using proxy voting, a system designed to reduce physical interactions in the building.

Lawmakers, however, don’t exactly have full control over when they’ll get the vaccine. Much of that guidance will come from the Capitol physician’s office, which has drawn some criticism from members and staff. The complaints, which have been made privately, center on a lack of transparency and slow response to adopting the kinds of stringent health rules — like not attending large gatherings or dinners — that much of the country had already adopted.

Many members are making it clear, however, that they will take the vaccine as soon as it’s offered to them even if they don’t know exactly when that will be.

“If they told me it was available two minutes from now down this hall, I’d go down and take it,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

“I’d take one right now. I’ll take two right now,” added Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) “I hear a lot of ‘I’m not gonna take it, because I don’t know what’s in it.’ And you know what I tell them? Do you eat hot dogs? You don’t know what’s in hot dogs, but you eat them. Take the vaccine.”

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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