Up to 25% of House members refuse COVID shots; Fauci warns of “disturbing” GOP vaccine avoidance

“I won’t be taking it. The survival rate is too high for me to want it,” says GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 15, 2021 12:31PM (EDT)

Madison Cawthorn at the RNC (Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)
Madison Cawthorn at the RNC (Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)

Slow acceptance of the coronavirus vaccine among lawmakers is delaying plans for the House of Representatives to return to a full legislative session, allowing members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to stall bills that have clear majority support.

About 25% of House members have either refused to be vaccinated, are avoiding it due to medical conditions or have not reported getting one, according to a memo from the Office of Attending Physician obtained by Axios. The memo said that congressional doctors cannot make new recommendations "regarding the modification or relaxation of existing social distancing guidelines" until they understand why members have not been vaccinated.

The report did not specify which members have been most reluctant to get the vaccine but polls show that white Republicans, particularly men and Trump supporters, are far more likely to oppose the vaccine than any other group, while Democrats overwhelmingly say they want a vaccine or have already received one. Congress has had its own vaccine supply since December.

"I won't be taking it. The survival rate is too high for me to want it," 25-year-old freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., told Axios in December.

But the refusal has not been limited to young legislators.

"It is my choice," 62-year-old Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, told Fox Business in December, arguing that he was more concerned about the safety of the clinically-tested vaccine than about a highly contagious virus that has killed more than a half-million Americans in the last year. "I have the freedom to decide if I'm going to take a vaccine or not and in this case I am not going to take the vaccine."

Some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have actively discouraged members of Congress from getting vaccinated, while conservative media pundits like Fox News host Tucker Carlson have promoted vaccine skepticism for weeks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that the trend was "disturbing," expressing hopes that former President Donald Trump would encourage his fans to get a shot. Trump, despite demanding credit for the vaccine development, hid his vaccination from the public and was the only living former president not to appear in an ad campaign promoting the vaccine drive.

"How such a large proportion of a certain group of people would not want to get vaccinated merely because of political consideration, it makes absolutely no sense," Fauci told NBC News.

Vaccine avoidance among members of Congress lawmakers has delayed a return to normal legislative sessions. Due to social distancing requirements, votes can take more than three times longer than usual, according to Axios. That has allowed lawmakers like Greene to delay the passage of bills like the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and the Equality Act by forcing lengthy votes on procedural matters, frustrating even members of her own party.

Republicans have been adamant in pushing for a return to full sessions.

"Simply put: it's time that we return to regular order. House Republicans are eager for the chance to reopen the People's House, restore America's voice in Congress and work day in and day out to address the many concerns our constituents face," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week.

Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., echoed that sentiment during a debate on the House floor last Thursday.

"Now that we have seen from reports ... that roughly 75% of all members in this House have had a vaccination for COVID-19, there's a strong desire to get back to a regular floor schedule," he said.

But Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., responded by calling out vaccine avoidance by lawmakers.

"It would be a lot simpler if every member had been vaccinated," he said.

A spokesperson for Hoyer told Axios that the House will continue to "conduct our business in accordance with public health guidelines and in consultation with the Office of the Attending Physician," citing the "health and safety of members, legislative staff, journalists and House employees."

Public health officials also worry that vaccine avoidance by Trump supporters could stall the country's path to herd immunity. Disease experts say that between 75% and 85% of Americans need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity but surveys have repeatedly found that Republicans plan to either refuse the vaccine or "wait and see."

"Vaccines are our only way out of this. If we don't have 80-plus percent of the population vaccinated before next winter, this virus is going to come back raging," Dr. Paul Offit, who sits on the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory committee, told NBC News. "What worries me is if 25% of Republicans say they won't get vaccinated, that's going to be hard to do."

Paul Mango, who helped lead the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed initiative, told The Washington Post that it was "confounding" that the former president's supporters are apparently most likely to avoid the vaccine he touted for months.

"I really don't understand it, to tell you the truth," he said. "To me, this was the most spectacular medical development in our lifetimes."

Public health experts say that Trump's attempts to downplay the pandemic poisoned the well long before vaccines became available.

"The attitude that the seriousness of COVID was being exaggerated in the media tracks well with how President Trump talked about it when he was in office," Liz Hamel, director of the public opinion and survey research team at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Post. "His message 'you shouldn't be worried about it', his relentless positivity, is reflected in the attitudes of many Republicans who don't want to get the vaccine."

Trump did not urge people to get vaccinated until his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. Fauci told Fox News on Sunday that if Trump took a more active role in urging his fans to get shots, that "would make all the difference in the world."

Fauci continued: "It's puzzling to me. I mean, clearly Operation Warp Speed started in the Trump administration. It was very successful in getting us the vaccines we have right now. It seems like an intrinsic contradiction, the fact that you had a program that was started during his presidency and he's not telling people to get vaccinated. I wish he would. He has such an incredible influence over people in the Republican Party. It would really be a game-changer if he did."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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