The images started popping up over the weekend, in press releases and on social media feeds: Members of Congress, jackets off and sleeves rolled up, among the first in the country to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey got the shots, as did Representative Annie Kuster of New Hampshire. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted videos of herself being vaccinated on her Instagram story over the weekend and answered followers’ questions about the process.
“I would . . . never, ever ask you to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,” she wrote.
Vice President Mike Pence got the vaccine, as did President-elect Joe Biden, both to engender public confidence and for national security reasons. And the attending physician of Congress, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, strongly recommended that all members receive one.
But critics, including some elected officials, questioned whether politicians less crucial to the daily operation of government really needed the vaccine immediately when millions of essential workers — in health care, grocery stores, schools, prisons, and long-term care facilities — have not yet received their first doses.
“Congress needs to stop treating itself as a special political class,” Representative Brian Mast of Florida said Friday in a statement, adding that he’d wait until the vaccine is more widely available.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu was more direct.
“Since when is doing nothing an essential function?” Sununu asked in a tweet Saturday. “It’s ridiculous that Congress is cutting in line ahead of folks in Long Term Care. I’ll be the first in line to get the vaccine when it’s my turn.”
Since when is doing nothing an essential function?— Chris Sununu (@GovChrisSununu) December 19, 2020
It’s ridiculous that Congress is cutting in line ahead of folks in Long Term Care. I’ll be the first in line to get the vaccine when it’s my turn.
Do your job & pass a relief package or fire them all. https://t.co/F4KlMjGnRf
About 556,000 people have received the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — enough for some front-line workers and long-term care facility residents, but a small fraction of what’s needed to control the spread of the virus.
Eventually there should be enough doses for everyone who wants the vaccine, but for now, there is scarcity. And with that comes increased scrutiny of who deserves immunity first.
Elected officials’ stated reasons for taking the vaccine largely fell into two categories: Maintaining “continuity of government” — a set of protocols originally meant to prevent a power vacuum in the event of a nuclear attack or other catastrophic event; and leading by example, showing constituents that the vaccines are safe and effective by rolling up their own sleeves.
Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, for instance, said she wanted to boost confidence in the vaccine, especially among Black and brown communities whose trust in the health care establishment has been eroded by racist medical experimentation and structural inequities over many generations.
“It is up to our research and medical institutions, our elected officials, and our collective public health response to make amends and earn the trust of communities of color as we distribute this vaccine and rebuild,” Pressley said in a statement after receiving the vaccine.
In the coming months, public health professionals will have to rely on a large and diverse contingent of people to share their experiences with the vaccine to try and build trust, said Dr. Bisola O. Ojikutu, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“The power and the influence of the message is dependent on the messengers,” Ojikutu said. “Messengers vary greatly from individual to individual, community to community. My sense is that people want the messengers to be people who they trust. Family members, colleagues, people in their neighborhood. Those are people who can spread the word. But also people who are leaders — faith leaders, doctors, people who are on the front lines sharing their experiences. I think that’s powerful.”
But especially at first, health providers may be in a better position than politicians to shape public opinion on the ground. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in early December found 85 percent of respondents trusted information from their doctors or health care providers. Only 58 percent said they trusted information from local government officials.
And just 22 percent of who said they will definitely not get the vaccine — the group, representing about one-quarter of those polled, that public health officials most need to sway — said they trusted their state government officials to provide accurate information about the virus. Just over half — 59 percent — trusted their own doctors on the matter.
Having some public leaders express confidence in the vaccine may help build community trust, said Karen M. Emmons, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But faith in the system could erode if the connected and powerful can jump the line.
“This is a space where you’re in a position of scarcity, where you really have to think about those ethical principles,” Emmons said.
She pointed to a photo Senator Marco Rubio of Florida posted on Twitter of himself getting the shot, with a self-deprecating joke about his squeamishness and pale upper arm. Rubio, and every other person in Congress, she said, can probably afford to wait because he can mitigate their risk of catching the virus by working remotely, wearing a mask, and avoiding large gatherings.
She emphasized that the work of building trust and collaborating with communities, particularly people hesitant or distrustful of medical establishments, should not be relegated to a footnote at the end of the research process. It should be an intrinsic part of it from the very start, she said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.