An Oct. 21 article about flu shots for federal officials incorrectly said that Treasury Secretary John W. Snow is 71. He is 65. Also, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham should have been included among the Cabinet secretaries who are choosing not to receive flu shots this year. (Published 10/22/04)
President Bush questioned yesterday whether members and employees of Congress should receive flu shots if they do not meet federal health guidelines designed to cope with a nationwide vaccine shortage.
"I think if they're able-bodied, I don't think they ought to," Bush said in an interview with Reuters aboard Air Force One. "I am not going to take the flu shot."
Nearly 2,000 lawmakers and staffers have received flu shots free of charge or the long waits that many Americans have endured. The inoculations were given by the office of the Capitol's attending physician, John F. Eisold, who has urged all lawmakers to be vaccinated -- even if they are not in high-risk groups -- because of their routine contact with children and older people.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised healthy people ages 2 to 64 to skip the flu shot this year to help ensure that those at greater risk can be vaccinated. The targeted populations for the flu vaccination include adults 65 or older, children 6 months to 23 months, women who will be pregnant during flu season, health care workers, and people with weakened immune systems, diabetes, kidney diseases or blood disorders.
A clinic began vaccinating senators and staffers in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Oct. 7, two days after the government began urging that shots be reserved primarily for high-risk groups. But the event, one of several set up by Eisold around the Capitol, was organized before the guidelines were announced, according to Frist's aides.
Frist, 52, a physician whose staff said he received a flu shot before the shortage became known, had written a letter to all senators Sept. 29 urging them and their staffs to be vaccinated. While Frist did not write a follow-up letter after the guidelines were announced, the restrictions were explained to anyone who came to the clinic in Frist's office, and they "had to make their own determination" about whether to get a shot, an aide said.
Several members of Congress now say Capitol Hill has the wrong prescription for who should receive the shots. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose staff said she has not gotten a shot, yesterday asked Eisold to vaccinate only members and staff who meet CDC guidelines, and to donate leftover doses to the D.C. Department of Health.
"As communities nationwide struggle to meet the need for extra doses of the flu vaccine, members of Congress and their staffs should not be given special treatment," Pelosi, 64, wrote in a letter to Eisold. "We should follow the same CDC criteria as the rest of the country."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), 45, whose staff said he did not receive a flu shot, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), 67, whose staff said she did, wrote similar letters yesterday urging Eisold to limit shots to those who need them most.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), 59, wrote to Eisold that "members of Congress who are not at risk should not receive the vaccine ahead of the general public who are part of the at-risk population," according to the Associated Press.
Norton said Eisold telephoned her yesterday. "He has indicated to me that they will only now give what remaining vaccine they have to people in the high-risk group," she said. Eisold also agreed to turn over any surplus vaccine to the D.C. Department of Health, Norton said.
Eisold's office did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday.
Eisold said Tuesday that many congressional employees have voluntarily abided by the CDC guidelines. But people of all ages who are credentialed to work in the Capitol -- including staffers, police, journalists, construction workers and restaurant employees -- can receive shots merely by saying they meet CDC guidelines, with no additional questions asked, Eisold's spokesman has said.
The question of who received flu shots quickly moved from a public health issue to fodder for the presidential campaign. The campaign of Democrats John F. Kerry, 60, and John Edwards, 51, neither of whom has received a shot, criticized Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Frist, all Republicans, for getting them.
"Once again, the Bush administration proves that it is the 'do as we say, not as we do' White House," Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
Cheney is 63 and has had four heart attacks. Snow is 71 and received the shot from his private physician, a Treasury spokeswoman said.
Some local members of Congress were on the defensive yesterday about accepting the free flu shots on Capitol Hill. Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), 65, and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), 61, said they received flu shots before they knew there was a shortage.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), 77, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), 68, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), 78, fell into the high-risk category and received shots, though Bartlett's office said the congressman did not really want one.
"He happened to be in the physician's office, and they said, 'Oh, we have flu vaccine. Why don't you get a shot?' " Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright said. "Because he was there, and it was the avenue of less resistance, he got it."
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), 58, received a vaccination because he has asthma. "There is no preferential treatment here," spokeswoman Heather Molino said.
Among those who did not get a shot are Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), 52, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), 53. Reps. Jo Ann S. Davis, Edward L. Schrock, J. Randy Forbes and Virgil H. Goode Jr., all Virginia Republicans, did not respond to inquiries about whether they received a flu shot.
"We've got vulnerable people who are susceptible to being greatly harmed if they should get the flu," Cummings said. "We as leaders need to make sure that we see that the most vulnerable are taken care of first."
Faced with the vaccine shortage, federal agencies are scaling back flu-shot programs for their employees this fall. Most Cabinet departments contacted by The Washington Post this week said they will limit employee vaccinations to members of high-risk groups identified by the CDC.
Agencies that plan to limit flu shots to employees in high-risk groups include the departments of Education; Energy; Health and Human Services; Homeland Security; Housing and Urban Development; Interior; Justice; State; Treasury; Veterans Affairs; and the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. Some, including Education and OPM, say they have not received the vaccine they ordered and are not sure whether they will. The Defense Department is offering flu shots to selected employees and deployed military personnel.
At the departments of Agriculture and Transportation, officials have decided against offering any flu shots at all this year.
Most Cabinet secretaries have decided not to get flu shots this year, according to their agencies. They include HHS chief Tommy G. Thompson, Ann M. Veneman of Agriculture, Alphonso Jackson of HUD, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Norman Y. Mineta of DOT, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Anthony J. Principi of the VA and Gale A. Norton of Interior. OPM Director Kay Coles James and OMB director Joshua B. Bolten also are skipping the shots.
In addition to Snow, Education Department chief Roderick R. Paige, 71, received a flu shot.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce did not respond to The Post's inquiries. A Labor Department spokeswoman said she will not have information about vaccinations there until today.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Amit Paley, Charles Babington and Al Kamen contributed to this report.