Democrats have rejected the notion from Republicans that a 75 percent vaccination rate is a sufficient level to reopen the House of Representatives, which has operated since last March under more restrictive rules, and urged GOP leaders to better encourage their rank-and-file to get the shots.
“The more people that are vaccinated, the quicker we can return to normal,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote Monday in a letter to lawmakers, citing a plea from the Office of Attending Physician that more members get vaccinated.
In a letter to Pelosi last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that about 75 percent of House members had received a vaccine, which would mean more than 100 members have not been vaccinated. Aides to McCarthy said the percentage was relayed to him by the physician’s office. No figure for the Senate has been revealed.
Lists of House and Senate members who have not received a vaccination are not publicly available. The Washington Post contacted 42 congressional offices, and 24 said whether the member had been vaccinated. Nine Republicans said they had not received a shot. None of the 11 Democrats who responded acknowledged not being vaccinated.
Several Republicans told The Post that they have not been vaccinated because they have had covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and would rely on protection from antibodies they naturally produced after a positive coronavirus diagnosis.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said reinfection has rarely occurred among the 30 million Americans who have gained natural immunity from having the coronavirus, such as himself. “I’m going with the science on this one,” said Paul, an ophthalmologist.
People typically retain a robust immune response to the coronavirus for at least eight months after an infection, and potentially much longer, researchers said in a recent study.
Republican Reps. Gus M. Bilirakis (Fla.) and Michael Waltz (Fla.), who have each contracted the coronavirus, said they want to make sure all seniors and those at high risk in their districts receive a vaccine first before they do.
Other Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), have said they will not jump the line of Americans trying to secure a vaccine.
Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) declared that he would not receive a vaccine even though he has pushed for higher distribution in his district. “Congressman Cawthorn believes that each individual must make their own personal risk assessment in deciding whether or not to receive a vaccination,” his office said in a statement.
Others who said they had not been vaccinated are Republican Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Mike Braun (Ind.), and Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.).
Brian Monahan, who runs the Office of Attending Physician, which oversees health in Congress and the Supreme Court, has told members they should be vaccinated, even if they have had covid-19. Congressional officials have had no trouble in securing a vaccine supply.
In a letter sent to congressional offices Friday, Monahan said vaccination rates needed to improve before he will announce any decision to fully reopen the House.
“This information will inform [his] future recommendations,” he wrote, regarding “the modification or relaxation of existing social distancing guidelines, revising/accelerating the cohort House Floor voting procedures and other aspects of Congressional operations involving committee meetings and reopening of other processes.”
Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that it’s up to the GOP to stop giving supporters the option of getting a vaccine and encourage them to get one. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found that 49 percent of Republican men said they would not receive a vaccine if it were offered to them.
“I hope that leaders of our party from President Trump on down make it real clear that it’s a great idea to get a vaccination,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “I’d like to accelerate the process, so having all of us speak out would be a good thing.”
Former president Donald Trump, on Fox News on Tuesday night, recommended getting the vaccine but also said, “We have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that also.”
The Republican push to fully reopen the House mirrors the ongoing debate between Democrats and Republicans across the country as they argue about the best and safest ways to reopen any place of business. The divisions are on full display within the chamber now that the two House caucuses have taken different approaches to the politics of promoting vaccinations.
In his letter to Pelosi, McCarthy pointed out that the 75 percent of House members who had received a vaccine surpasses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for herd immunity in a population.
House Republicans called the vaccination program a success and demanded that Congress begin returning to its pre-pandemic footing.
The debate came to a head last week when Scalise also cited the 75 percent threshold in an exchange with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), calling for a “regular floor schedule” that would end the practice of “proxy” or remote voting and virtual committee hearings.
Hoyer responded by saying that the number was insufficient, urging Scalise to demand more Republicans get shots that are readily available to them.
“What I was saying to Scalise is if you would urge your members to get [vaccinated] and we can assert that all members have taken it, it would facilitate us getting back to some degree of normalcy. We want to get back there as quickly as possible,” Hoyer said on a call with reporters Tuesday, after clarifying that he does not know specifically which members have not received a vaccine.
Scalise, 55, did not acknowledge during debate that he has declined to get vaccinated now. According to an aide, he has decided he will not do so until his state allows people in his age range to be eligible to receive a vaccination. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
On March 14, 2020, just as the pandemic started shutting down the country, the first two lawmakers announced that they had tested positive for the coronavirus. By the end of December, 40 members of the House had publicly announced that they had tested positive or had doctors tell them they should be presumed positive — almost 10 percent of the 435 members, according to a database maintained by NPR.
Eight of the 100 senators announced positive tests last year, along with at least two more who later tested positive for virus antibodies.
On Dec. 17, Monahan sent letters to top congressional leaders informing them that members of Congress were eligible for coronavirus vaccinations under a 2016 continuity of a federal government memorandum privately published by the Obama administration’s National Security Council.
Pelosi and the top four lieutenants in her leadership team all received their first dose within five days of Monahan’s medical staff offering them to lawmakers, each one using their own shot to encourage the public to do the same.
“We must all get vaccinated at the first available opportunity,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) wrote on his Instagram account, showing a photo of the needle entering his arm.
On the Republican side, only McCarthy used his own vaccination to publicly promote the coronavirus vaccines and encourage others to follow suit.
Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) are the only other members of McCarthy’s top four lieutenants in leadership, which includes Scalise, to publicly acknowledge receiving a vaccine.
In the new Congress, sworn in Jan. 3, another 17 announced they have tested positive, including Rep. Ron Wright (R-Tex.), who died on Feb. 7, becoming the first federal officeholder to be counted among the more than 535,000 Americans killed by covid-19.
And after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, where dozens of Capitol Police officers contracted the virus following clashes with maskless rioters, congressional officials secured enough vaccine doses to inoculate the entire force of more than 2,000 officers.
At least five Democratic members, some of whom sheltered with maskless Republican colleagues during the Capitol insurrection, announced a positive diagnosis in the following days. Some had already received a first vaccine dose, spotlighting the need to receive the second dose of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for full efficacy.
But by mid-January, many lawmakers had already received their second dose, providing them with what medical experts say is near-total immunity. The vaccination effort with lawmakers went smoothly enough initially that by early January, Monahan’s office laid out a plan to have two members of staff from each of the 435 House members get a vaccine, too, along with senior aides on congressional committees and in leadership offices.
As shots have spread into more and more arms in the Capitol, no member of the House or Senate has announced a positive coronavirus test since Jan. 29.