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The List: Some government officials deemed more important than others in line for the COVID-19 vaccine

Several days ago the top government officials who will be at the front of the line to be vaccinated were announced. The White House, leaders on Capitol Hill, and in the judiciary will receive priority appointments for the vaccination against COVID-19. It is part of continuity-of-government planning.

This morning Vice-President Mike Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence, and the Surgeon General made a joint appearance to receive their vaccinations on camera. Besides the continuity-of-government angle for Pence, it was a good move for the nation’s top doc and the vice-president to lead by example and encourage everyone else to do the same when the vaccine becomes widely available.

National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot confirmed that senior government officials will be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines. Officials in all three branches of government are included.

“Senior officials across all three branches of government will receive vaccinations pursuant to continuity of government protocols established in executive policy,” Ullyot said in a statement. “The American people should have confidence that they are receiving the same safe and effective vaccine as senior officials of the United States government on the advice of public health professionals and national security leadership.”

A senior administration official pointed to guidance under Presidential Policy Directive 40, which provides for parallel continuity-of-government actions in both the legislative and judicial branches when undertaken by the executive branch.

The official said that in this case, people essential to the continuity of government, including in Congress, should receive vaccine priority.

Attending Physician Brian Monahan and his staff on Capitol Hill will be responsible for administering the vaccines. In the Senate, Roy Blunt, chair of the Senate Rules and Administration said he has spoken to Monahan about the process. At the time of the announcement that the officials would receive the vaccines, the number of doses that would be available was unclear. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said discussions had been ongoing for some time, even before the Pfizer vaccine was granted emergency use authorization.

“Of course, many qualify in terms of the high-risk groups in terms of age,” Hoyer said. “But in addition to that, clearly, it is critical that we have the Congress in a condition where it can operate on a continuing basis given the challenges that confront us a great immediacy.”

“I think there will be many people at the Capitol who will meet the requirements of first responders and people with comorbidities and other things, and I think the more places you’re giving, making the vaccine available, where you have the capacity to deliver it, the quicker we get to where we ant to get,” Blunt said last week.

Here’s the thing – vaccines are supposed to be distributed based on population and residency. In other words, lawmakers will receive their vaccines out of the allotment given to their home state. Members of Congress maintain their home state residency, as do many staffers, though they work in Washington, D.C. And, the point is being stressed that supplies are limited and only being offered to those officials deemed most essential for the government to operate smoothly. Their spouses, by the way, are not on the list.

Dr. Monahan distributed a “Dear Colleague” letter to House members and some staffers.

“My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: there is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine,” Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan said in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to House members and staff late Thursday. “The benefit far exceeds any small risk.”

Monahan said there was a limited supply of the vaccine and congressional spouses are not currently eligible because the Capitol is being provided with doses to ensure the continuity of government operations. Members are being encouraged to make appointments to get the vaccine — the one manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech — in the Rayburn Building.

“Once we have completed the vaccination of the Members, we will follow a process to identify the continuity-essential staff members in the various divisions of the Capitol community in the coming weeks,” Monahan wrote. “The appointing process will then continue until the small vaccine supply is exhausted. A second dose scheduling process will then begin later.”

On Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed he will take the vaccination citing his own correspondence with Dr. Monahan. He said even with the vaccine, he’ll continue following coronavirus guidelines like wearing a face mask and social distancing. Speaker Pelosi said she’ll do the same within the next few days. Senate President Pro Tempore Charles E. Grassley hasn’t made his decision known yet.

“Because of government continuity requirements, I have been informed by the Office of the Attending Physician that I am eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, which I will accept in the coming days,” the Kentucky Republican, who is a polio survivor, said in a statement.

“Even with a vaccine, I will continue following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and washing my hands frequently. I would strongly encourage everyone to continue following these important guidelines,” the 78-year-old McConnell said. “It is the only way we will defeat COVID-19 once and for all.”

It is still not clear whether there is a vaccine allotment for this purpose, with only five federal departments and agencies having announced special supplies. “The small number of COVID19 vaccine doses we will be provided reflects a fraction of the first tranche of vaccines as it is distributed throughout the country,” the attending physician wrote. The National Security Council said in a Sunday statement that top officials in all three branches would be prioritized for vaccines. The District of Columbia Department of Health has said the vaccine doses will not come from their allocation.

Army Gen. Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer for Warp Speed, said that five federal agencies have their own allotments – Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Department of State, Indian Health Services, and Bureau of Federal Prisons.

Pence’s dose is thought to come from his home state of Indiana’s allotment, the same is true for Biden’s dose which will come from Delaware’s allotment. Biden says he’ll be vaccinated next week. A Supreme Court spokesperson said the court is aware of the NSC’s statement on vaccines for the justices but offered no details. Chief Justice John G. Roberts and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer are both Maryland residents and neither are on the priority list because of the limited supply allotted to Maryland. If push comes to shove, I would assume that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ranks higher than the House Majority Leader, though Hoyer’s age puts him in the high-risk category. Many in all three branches are high-risk because of their ages alone. It will be interesting to see who makes the first cut for vaccines. There are a lot of big egos on Capitol Hill. All of them should do it on camera, too, to send a message to their constituents that taking the vaccine is an important step in handling the coronavirus pandemic.


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