As Republicans Shun Vaccines, Congress Toils to Return to Regular
WASHINGTON – Even as Americans across the country search for a life-saving shot to return to semblance of prandemic normalcy, more than a quarter of Congressmen just a phone call away from receiving a coronavirus vaccine have turned it down.
Legislators who continued to meet face to face during the pandemic, often in violation of public health recommendations, have had access to the Pfizer vaccine since late December. But in the House of Representatives, about 25 percent of lawmakers have not received a vaccination, the top Republican wrote to spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi this week, citing data from the doctor’s office. It is unclear how many Senators have been vaccinated, although a handful of Republicans have stated they don’t intend to get one.
Reluctance to get the vaccine reflects a broader trend in the United States, where there is varying levels of resistance to vaccination against the coronavirus, but polls suggest Republicans are far more skeptical. Since vaccinations are sensitive health information, there is no breakdown of which lawmakers received one or what party affiliations they have. In the past few weeks, however, several Republicans have publicly opposed the idea of vaccination.
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky and a retired ophthalmologist, said he would refuse a vaccine “with science on this case”.
“I didn’t choose to have a vaccination because I got it naturally,” Paul, who tested positive for the virus in March last year, recently told reporters. (Science says the opposite; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people get vaccinated even if they have already had the coronavirus.)
“I had Covid,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin. “I think that probably gives me the best immunity possible if I actually have the disease.”
Reluctance is just the latest obstacle Congress faces as leaders ponder how to begin restoring a sense of normalcy on Capitol Hill, where partisanship is inseparable from health decisions and offices are their own fiefs equal, each of which has its own rules and perceptions of risk. It comes at a time when many aides on Capitol Hill – some of whom work for lawmakers who expect them to appear at the office in person – are struggling to find a vaccine dose themselves, amid inconsistent guidelines about who should get one.
Ms. Pelosi, a Democrat of California, told reporters Friday that the House should aim to get “100 percent” of its members vaccinated, but complained that she could not force anyone to accept a shot. If the Republicans refused, she said, it would simply take longer for the house to return to normal, as members of that party have requested.
“You can’t tell anyone to do anything, least of all here,” said Ms. Pelosi. “The more people are vaccinated, the shorter we have to stay separated on the ground.”
Legislators seem to have different reasons for rejecting the vaccine, with some in both parties feeling uncomfortable about receiving a vaccine at a time when many of their constituents are unable to. However, Republicans were particularly vocal about concerns about the vaccine and other virus precautions.
Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, a first-time Republican who has modeled herself on President Donald J. Trump and proudly carries her pistol through the halls of convention, said it was “not the government’s proper role to force injections of any kind in anyone. “
On Thursday, Senator Roger Marshall, Republican of Kansas and former gynecologist, stood maskless in the Senate basement reading Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” to draw attention to his argument that vaccinated people shouldn’t wear masks.
His choice of children’s book also reflected how many Republicans have mocked coronavirus precautions as part of what they call liberal hysteria running amok. Mr. Marshall appeared to be tying them to a recent decision by the estate of author Theodor Geisel not to sell any more works he had written that contained racist material that conservatives complained was a symptom of “culture breakup”.
March 19, 2021, 4:43 p.m. ET
Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah who tested positive for the coronavirus in October, has made a resolution to wear a netmask to show his disdain for the security measure.
Some Democrats and Republicans have stated publicly and privately that they are uncomfortable with the visuals of the vaccination before their constituents can and will refrain from doing so until access is more widespread.
Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat of Minnesota, argued on Twitter that lawmakers were “no more important” than teachers and other frontline workers and should not be able to skip the line.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio became an ignorant example of the political disadvantage of accepting the shot after posting a photo on Twitter of getting one in December to help increase public confidence in the vaccine. Instead, critics piled on Twitter, accusing him of downplaying the virus threat just to protect himself before others had a chance.
“There has been some real internal fighting from some members of Congress who had the vaccination,” said Representative Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and emergency medical officer. “Blame it for the vaccination if others in their district couldn’t be vaccinated.”
Even making sure lawmakers’ counselors have access to the vaccine has been a paid proposition. Members of Congress were initially told that only two employees from each office could receive the bump, which sparked an awkward round of actuarial calculations and decisions.
One office sent a google doc around to measure interest. others wrestled with the question of whether vaccination should be a priority for lower-level aides who had worked from home but had health problems that made them more susceptible to the virus or of senior aides who wanted to come to the office.
This week, the Capitol Doctor announced a significant increase in vaccine availability, saying that each member’s office would be able to receive shots for six rescuers. This resulted in a spate of calls from hopeful Congress staff, with several staff reporting listening to music – a mix of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail to the Chief” – for an hour or two while they were there Waiting to schedule their appointments.
The Scattershot approach reflects the lack of consistent procedures to protect Congress from the coronavirus, a challenge that has persisted throughout the pandemic. While the Democratic leaders of the House have imposed a stringent set of guidelines for the use of masks on the floor and have turned to proxy voting and remote hearing, there are no requirements for how each office works.
Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician, issued a memo late last month urging lawmakers to continue teleworking. He said remote working would “continue indefinitely for a significant number of employees,” and asked lawmakers to avoid face-to-face meetings whenever possible.
But the convention bureaus have put together a set of rules on a case-by-case basis that guide their transitions back to work. While many Republican offices have brought back workers, Democratic offices have largely maintained skeleton crews, and some aides returning to the Capitol complex said they were horrified to see workers from neighboring offices walking around the halls without masks.
House Republicans, impatient to return to work as usual, argue that since lawmakers have been granted the special exemptions for essential workers, they should be asked to come forward to do their work in person.
They were particularly alarmed by what they see as the bipartisan abuse of teleworking which they fear may become the new status quo. Legislators have appeared from afar in the past few weeks at hearings of trains, boats and, in one case, of a car it operated on what appeared to be a freeway. A group of Republicans used proxy voting to cast their votes for the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Republican of House No. 2, said the report that 75 percent of all members of the House had been vaccinated was an argument for a return to normal and that “there is a strong desire to become one Regular return schedule here on the floor. “
Democratic leaders are not that convinced. Maryland Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, told reporters this week that guides wanted to be careful not to put the cart in front of the horse and return to normal operations until it was completely safe. He pointed to variants of the virus that are spreading around the world and suggested that even if most lawmakers were vaccinated, they could still pose a risk to the thousands of employees who and may not work at the Capitol complex .
“It will end at some point, but I don’t know the timeline and I don’t think anyone knows the timeline,” said Hoyer. “What we don’t want to risk is what happens, a third kind of surge in the virus and its mutations, its variants.”
Marissa Baker, a professor at the University of Washington’s Public Health School who specializes in occupational medicine, said Congress is an especially difficult place to work to protect because of the large number of face-to-face interactions across the country that are lawmakers’ routines .
“It’s not really a light switch that we can do back to 2019,” Ms. Baker said. “Rather, it has to be seen as a gradual return to baseline.”
Dr. Ruiz said a “hybrid model” would most likely continue to exist for some time.
“We’re not going to go back to normal, where we have public meetings in our office, where people visit the Capitol – like the hustle and bustle of Capitol Hill before the pandemic – for a very long time. ” he said.
Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane contributed to the coverage.