The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Washington’s covid-19 policies as fair as they can be?

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Surgeon General Jerome Adams watch as Sheetal Sheth, medical director for labor and delivery at George Washington University Hospital, receives a coronavirus vaccine in December. (Pool/Reuters)
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Yes, but is it fair?” Chief Justice Earl Warren, known for his innate sense of justice, would lean forward and put that question to lawyers who laid out well-reasoned legal cases in oral argument.

The same question occurred to me in light of two covid-19-related actions taking place in our nation’s capital. First, the recently announced decisions regarding who in Washington will be given priority access to the scarce coronavirus vaccine. Second, plans to hold pro-Trump rallies on Jan. 6 — gatherings that risk community spread of the coronavirus in an already pandemic-stricken region.

It’s clear that vaccination guidance provided by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and by Congress’s Office of the Attending Physician covers approximately the same geographic area.

But the vaccination priorities couldn’t be more disparate in a city where the racial disparity in covid-19 deaths between Black and White residents is the highest in the nation.

The city’s Phase 1A group for the vaccine gives top priority to District people serving on the front lines “who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials” and cannot work from home.

They include front-line public health staff, home health aides, and workers in acute-care hospitals, long-term-care facilities, emergency medical services, outpatient settings, and dental and pharmacy settings. Phase 1A also includes D.C. residents in skilled nursing facilities, assisted-living facilities and longer-term psychiatric inpatient programs.

An estimated 115,000 individuals are in the Phase 1A group.

Congress, in contrast, is pushing more than 1,000 Capitol Hill staffers to the front of the line. Members of the House and Senate began receiving the first of two coronavirus vaccine shots earlier in December.

Vaccine eligibility has been awarded to two staffers in every House member and senator’s personal offices. What’s more, the vaccine is being offered to four staffers of every committee chair and every ranking committee member. Congress considers these staffers to be “critical” and essential for “continuity of operations.” Most congressional workers are under 35.

As for D.C. law enforcement and public safety workers, teachers, childcare providers, grocery store and public transit workers, and Postal Service workers? They are in the city’s Phase 1B — the second group. They must wait until the 115,000 in Phase 1A are taken care of, and for when enough vaccine becomes available.

But is it fair?

Are staff members of, let’s say, congressional small business committees or worker bees for House Republicans such as Louie Gohmert (Tex.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) — who on Jan. 6, hellbent on trashing democracy, plan to try to overturn the result of a presidential election when Congress convenes to formally count the 2020 electoral college votes — more essential to the functioning of society than mail carriers, firefighters or grocery-store cashiers?

Yet, D.C. folks on the front lines must stand and wait, in hopes they don’t contract the deadly virus before more vaccine arrives.

The city’s Phase 1B category also includes D.C. residents who are 75 years and older.

The city estimates about 110,000 individuals are in Phase 1B. Because of my age and underlying health conditions, Phase 1B is where I belong.

I hope and deserve to be the last person in line.

I am not critical to the functioning of this city. The operation of the District ― or, for that matter, The Post — can get along without me very well.

My physical presence is not required anywhere in this city, except maybe at home — and that is when my wife, Gwen, is in a forgiving mood. Most of my in-person interactions these days involve our two black Labs — Ronnie and Buster — if they are in good moods. I know my part.

But so, too, should the crowd that President Trump has incited to descend upon Congress as it meets to certify the electoral results. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” tweeted Trump. He followed that up with a Wednesday tweet to supporters, “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!”

If they behave like those at two previous pro-Trump gatherings, social distancing and mask-wearing will be treated as afterthoughts, with shouting, chanting and coughing as plentiful as Trump-mania.

No matter, apparently. D.C. police, emergency services and public-safety workers must be on hand, exposed to infections and raging protesters, and away from the communities they have sworn to protect — because of the scheming rage of Donald Trump.

Is that fair?

Read more:

Joan Bregstein: Think about getting vaccinated like voting. It’s your civic duty.

Joseph G. Allen: Yes, the new variant of coronavirus is alarming. But kids should stay in school.

David Von Drehle: After a catastrophic 2020, the big story of 2021 could be a hopeful one