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

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Top congressional leaders will receive the coronavirus vaccine in the coming days with dozens of lawmakers planning to quickly follow suit — an effort designed to maintain a continuity of government while also instilling public confidence in the shot.The limited batch of doses, which is expected to soon arrive in the House and Senate and was first reported by POLITICO, marks a major development for lawmakers and frontline workers in a Capitol complex that has battled dozens of cases this year. But the sudden announcement of vaccines stunned many lawmakers who had been kept in the dark about whether they would get doses at all. Now, members are preparing for their first doses in what’s expected to be the final week in session of the 116th Congress.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 Congress.Lawmakers first received word that vaccinations were imminent on the Hill in a letter sent by the Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, on Thursday evening, outlining some key details of how the vaccination process will work. Members of Congress will receive top priority and are being encouraged to schedule an appointment as soon as possible to receive their vaccination, which will require two shots. The Office of the Attending Physician will then identify “continuity-essential staff members” who will be next in line — likely campus police officers and other essential workers who keep the Capitol running amid the pandemic. “The appointing process will then continue until the small vaccine supply is exhausted,” Monahan wrote to members.But as some lawmakers grapple with whether it’s fair to be among the first to receive the vaccine, Monahan was clear: “My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: there is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine,” he wrote. “The benefit far exceeds any small risk.” Earlier Thursday, Monahan sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, informing him that Congress would be receiving a small tranche of coronavirus vaccines. Both McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is second in line to the presidency after the vice president, said Thursday they would take the vaccine in the coming days. “With confidence in the vaccine and at the direction of the Attending Physician, I plan to receive the vaccine in the next few days,” Pelosi said, adding, “It is imperative that we ensure that the vaccine will be free and delivered in a fair, equitable manner to as many Americans as soon as possible.”And McConnell, citing “government continuity requirements,” also said he would accept a recommendation from the Office of the Attending Physician to take the vaccine. McConnell, a childhood polio survivor, urged Americans to have faith in the vaccine.Spouses and family members will not be eligible to receive a vaccine from the congressional supply, Monahan said. As for congressional staff, the letter was less clear. 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. Many pointed to the efforts by federal officials to distribute vaccines to top government officials, with Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden set to receive vaccines within days.Congressional leaders are only just beginning to tackle the complicated task of allocating doses among hundreds of lawmakers and essential building workers. The rollout could be 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 lack of a Hill distribution up until this point had frustrated some members, who said they’d received zero guidance from leadership or the Capitol physician about when they would receive the first round of doses — let alone how many or who should get it first. Some worried that Congress would 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.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.”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, had 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. “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.Many members are making it clear, however, that they will take the vaccine as soon as it’s offered to them. “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.”Heather Caygle and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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