A slate of GOP lawmakers who downplayed different concerns about the coronavirus pandemic or ignored public health advice are now facing a wave of backlash for being among the first to receive a vaccine.
With only limited doses available across the US, members of Congress have been prioritized for inoculation in an effort to maintain governmental continuity on Capitol Hill. But some GOP lawmakers who have publicized their shots – something public health experts have recommended to advertise the vaccine’s safety – are fielding fierce disapproval given their past comments downplaying or misrepresenting the virus earlier this year.
This includes Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who tweeted Sunday that she had “received the first dose of the #COVID19 vaccine” at the recommendation of the Office of the Attending Physician.
“I encourage all Iowans and Americans to do the same when their time comes,” she said. “Thanks to #OperationWarpSpeed and the tireless work of Americans across the country, we are one step closer to defeating this virus.”
But her early vaccination drew swift condemnation on social media, with many pointing to comments she had made in September during her successful reelection campaign suggesting that health care workers were inflating Covid-19 death numbers for profit.
One viral tweet from Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, placed Ernst’s false comments under the caption “How it started” alongside her photo receiving the vaccine under the caption “how it’s going.”
The backlash underscores a larger rift unfolding in Congress about when to receive the vaccine. Some lawmakers in recent days have vowed to wait to get vaccinated until vulnerable groups in the US have a chance to get vaccinated as well.
Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted earlier Monday, “I had planned to get the vaccine but will now stand in solidarity with our seniors by not doing so until THEY can. I urge my colleagues who are under 65 and healthy to join me.”
She joins Reps. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, and Rep.-elect Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, who have all said they are waiting to get vaccinated until other essential Americans have access.
Their message follows a memo from the Capitol attending physician that said there was a “small vaccine supply” available to Congress.
“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,” the memo said. “The appointing process will then continue until the small vaccine supply is exhausted. A second dose scheduling process will then begin later.”
Some public health experts have stressed the importance of top elected officials receiving the vaccine as a way to relay its safety to the American people. High-profile lawmakers in both parties, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have all received the vaccine in recent days while advertising it as a safe way to help end the pandemic.
And many in Congress are considered vulnerable for Covid-19 complications because of their advanced ages.
Most Americans, however, won’t have access for months. While the US Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency use authorization to two vaccines, it’s clear there will not be enough for everyone who wants a vaccination right away.
Vaccine advisers have already broken down priority groups into subgroups, and have designated only the very, very first people to get vaccines. Those in this 1a group designated by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices include front-line health care workers and people in long-term care homes.
The limited supply for those priority groups has helped fuel the scrutiny aimed at some of the GOP lawmakers who have received the vaccine.
Like Ernst, Sen. Lindsey Graham – a close ally of President Donald Trump who has often echoed the President’s misleading coronavirus messages – has faced considerable condemnation.
“Thank God for nurses who help people in need and know how to use a needle,” the South Carolina Republican tweeted on Saturday alongside a photo of himself receiving the vaccine.
“Thank God for those who produced these vaccines,” he continued. “If enough of us take it, we will get back to normal lives. Help is on the way.”
Graham has consistently defended Trump’s coronavirus response and a South Carolina US Senate debate in October was forced to change formats after Graham rejected his opponent’s request to take an additional Covid-19 test after he had attended a hearing with a lawmaker who later tested positive.
As a result, news of his vaccination garnered thousands of critical responses, many from people who say they work in health care and haven’t been able to get a vaccine yet.
Sen. Marco Rubio fielded particularly sharp rebukes after tweeting a photo of himself getting the vaccine and noting that he is “so confident” in it that he “decided to take it myself.” The Florida Republican, who is 49 years old, spoke at a largely maskless rally for the Georgia US Senate contests last month.
CNN political commentator Ana Navarro took particular issue with Rubio joking on Twitter that he “looked away from the needle” and knows that he needs “a tan.”
“Something that really pissed me off – triggered me of that post, was, you know, he started by making a joke about how he looked away from the needle and how he needed a tan in his arm. You’ve got privilege that others don’t. You are getting a precious vaccine that millions are waiting for,” she told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on “Newsroom.”
“There’s people risking their lives on a daily basis that are not getting that vaccine yet, and you crack a joke about your pasty white arm? Really?”
CNN has contacted the offices of Ernst and Graham for comment. After this story was published, Rubio on Twitter pointed to a statement he made in June when he said “everyone should just wear a damn mask” and suggested that him taking the vaccine would encourage others to do the same.
President-elect Joe Biden received his first dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on live television Monday afternoon and reassured Americans of the vaccine’s safety.
“We owe these folks an awful lot,” Biden said, thanking those involved in the vaccine’s development and distribution and front-line health care workers.
While Vice President Mike Pence also publicly received the vaccine, a White House official told CNN earlier this month that it won’t be administered to Trump until it’s recommended by the White House medical team.
The official said Trump is still receiving the benefits of the monoclonal antibody cocktail he was given during his recovery from Covid-19 in the fall.
This story has been updated to include comment from Rubio.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.