Fauci, US Lawmakers Get Early Access to COVID-19 Vaccines

Kerry Dooley Young

December 22, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

After Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, rolled up his sleeve for his first dose of Moderna Inc's COVID-19 vaccine at a public ceremony, he explained why he needed early access to the limited supply of this medicine.

Like other top federal officials appearing at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ceremony, including NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, Fauci addressed the need to assure the public of the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. US regulators this month gave emergency clearance to the competing Moderna Inc and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which were developed less than a year after SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a global threat.

By taking his first dose of Moderna's vaccine during a webcast ceremony, Fauci sought to build faith in the COVID shots. Long respected in medical circles, Fauci has become more well known among the American public at large during the pandemic.

"I want to encourage everyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated so that we can have a veil of protection over this country," Fauci said during today's ceremony.

But the first reason Fauci cited for getting his vaccination ― his being in direct contact with patients ― is one that falls more squarely in line with the recommendations federal advisory groups have given for prioritizing the initial limited doses of COVID-19 vaccine. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended giving the initial limited supplies of vaccine to healthcare workers, along with residents of long-term care facilities.

"I'm an attending physician here on the staff at the National Institutes of Health clinical center, and so I do see patients," Fauci said during the webcast of the NIH ceremony.

Fauci has continued his clinical work over the decades since becoming director in 1984 of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 2014, for example, he treated Nina Pham, a Texas nurse who was sent to the NIH Clinical Center after contracting Ebola virus. In an interview with The BMJ, published in September, Fauci spoke about the reason he has continued to see patients during the current pandemic.

"I'm a scientist, to be sure. But I'm a scientist because I'm a physician scientist. And it really helps me to understand the disease, understand pathogenesis, where you get to see people, but also to understand the impact it has on them," Fauci told The BMJ.

"And it inspires me," added Fauci, who turns 80 this month. "I think it gives me energy to know what it is that I'm dealing with first hand — the way I did for a very long time with HIV and with Ebola, and the way we're doing now with COVID-19."

Congressional Controversy

CDC's ACIP held a series of meetings this year to prepare to make recommendations about which people should receive the first available doses of the COVID-19 vaccines.

ACIP members wrestled again with this question on Sunday. The panel recommended that the second wave of COVID-19 vaccine recipients should include what it termed "frontline essential workers" and adults aged 75 years and older.

With many US healthcare workers still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines, there has been criticism of the decision by members of Congress to get these shots last week.

Lawmakers in both parties have said they have taken the vaccine to boost public confidence in the COVID-19 shots. On the day she received the vaccine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tweeted, "Today, with confidence in science & at the direction of the Office of the Attending Physician, I received the COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccine is being distributed, we must all continue mask wearing, social distancing & other science-based steps to save lives & crush the virus."


Pelosi posted a statement on December 17 citing "government continuity guidelines" as a reason for elected officials to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Congress' Office of the Attending Physician decided that members of the House and Senate were eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the statement.

"The Attending Physician further stated to Members 'My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: there is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine'," the statement from Pelosi's office said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a polio survivor, tweeted on December 18: "Just received the safe, effective COVID vaccine following continuity-of-government protocols. Vaccines are how we beat this virus."


But other lawmakers from both parties have said elected officials should hold off until healthcare workers have received their COVID-19 vaccinations. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has tweeted repeatedly on this theme. In response to a tweet asking whether the age of congressional leaders was the reason for their early COVID-19 vaccinations, Omar tweeted on December 20 from her Twitter-verified personal handle, @IlhanMN, that she felt it was instead entitlement that had put members of Congress at the front of the line, calling this "shameful."

Lawmakers are not more important than frontline workers "who are making sacrifices everyday," Omar said. "People who need it most, should get it. Full stop."


Omar on December 21 retweeted a photo of a Minnesota clinician who had been vaccinated, adding a message of thanks.

"We are grateful for the sacrifice and service of Dr. Ibrahim," Omar wrote, adding that "he and other frontline workers deserve to be first in line for the vaccine."


On the matter of COVID-19 vaccines, Omar, a liberal newcomer to the House, has taken a position at odds with a colleague with whom she often works closely, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). On December 21, the New Yorker tweeted in favor of lawmakers getting vaccinated to build public trust in these products.

"Our job is to make sure the vaccine isn't politicized the way masks were politicized," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, referring to resistance by many GOP lawmakers to wearing masks. Leaders should "show we won't ask others to do something we wouldn't do ourselves."


By contrast, like Omar, Sen. Rand Paul, MD (R-KY), also argued against early COVID-19 vaccinations for lawmakers. He tweeted on December 21 that he felt it was "inappropriate" for him, as someone who already had had the virus, to get a vaccine before healthcare workers and older people. He added that younger people such as Ocasio-Cortez should be among the last vaccinated. The New York Democrat is 31.


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