WASHINTON D.C. — The nation’s leading health experts and the Trump administration have said scientists are getting closer to developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, but concerns linger about whether enough people will be willing to take it.
“Only population-wide immunity will stop the spread of COVID-19 and end the pandemic,” said Dr. Bruce Gellin from the Sabin Vaccine Institute during a House committee hearing on July 14.
In the medical community, that’s known as herd immunity.
It requires at least 70 percent of the population to either have recovered from the virus or have gotten a vaccination.
“For that, we need public trust in this entire vaccine project,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) during the July hearing.
The problem is that several nationwide polls show about half of Americans say they wouldn’t take a vaccine if one were available today.
“There are clearly concerns about the vaccine,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) during a Senate hearing on July 2. “About half of Americans are either reluctant. About one in five Americans say they’re just not going to take the vaccine. I certainly intend to and I think most Americans will as we reassure people about this process.”
There have been some concerns about whether the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed program is rushing the process, though health experts have said all the usual safeguards are still in place.
“Please, don’t write it off,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Washington Correspondent Samantha Manning in a one-on-one interview. “It would be a shame if we had something that could end this epidemic, but people weren’t willing to take it.”
In an exclusive months-long investigation, we looked into whether our elected leaders are going to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Over nearly four months, we contacted the offices of all 530 active members of Congress.
We sent more than 1,000 emails, made phone calls, and showed up at their Congressional offices to see if they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one is deemed safe and effective by the FDA and if the lawmaker has consulted with their doctor.
We also took the question in-person to some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
About one-third of the 530 members of Congress responded to us despite months of our follow-up requests.
Around 75 percent of those who responded said, yes, they would get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m not a big needle taker. They have to talk me into the flu shot under great duress each year, but if it serves as a model to other people, yes I will take it, the vaccine, if it was approved by the regular order,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Some who said yes included lawmakers who said they have already had COVID-19.
"We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars to partner with American companies and we have 30,000 Americans already in clinical trials working with the federal government overseeing
the development of vaccines," said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). “I can’t wait to see a vaccine come out and even though I’ve had the disease already, I’ll be more than willing to take it.”
Many specified that they want to make sure the vaccine is first given to those working on the front lines and those at high risk of complications from COVID-19 before getting it themselves.
“Sen. Tillis has no doubt the vaccine would be safe, but wants first responders and the medical community to get it first,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
“I think we place a priority on that and as soon as I know they have been protected, then I will be standing in line,” Tillis added.
“Senator [Sherrod] Brown would like as many Americans as possible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, including himself,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “He will evaluate when he gets the vaccine based on the limited supply available, so as to ensure communities and populations in most need receive the vaccine first.”
The responses did not appear to be along party lines; around 74 percent of Republicans who responded said yes and around 77 percent of Democrats who responded said yes.
But some Democrats have stressed they trust the scientists and not President Trump.
“If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during the October 7 vice presidential debate.
Around 16 percent of lawmakers who responded did not provide definitive answers as to whether they would personally get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Development of a vaccine is the most important step towards getting our country back to normal,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). “Senator Scott will make that decision, with consultation from his doctor, once the vaccine is developed. Senator Scott is focused on supporting every government effort towards vaccine development and has called for the coronavirus vaccine to be available free of charge to all Americans so our economy can fully reopen, and families and businesses can get back to normal.”
“Because of my frequent air travel requirements and collaborative responsibilities in Congress which continues to physically meet in Washington D.C., I will follow the advice of my personal physician, Dr. Laurence Ronan, at the Mass General Hospital and Dr. Monahan, the House Physician,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).
None of the offices responded by saying no.
Several lawmakers declined to comment, with some saying it was a private health matter.
In September, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams testified before Congress and urged lawmakers to take a public stand supporting the vaccine development process.
“Use your bully pulpits to tweet, text, blog and shout that vaccines are safe,” Adams said during the September hearing.
We asked the Surgeon General if he feels it’s the responsibility of our lawmakers to set an example for the public by being willing to get the vaccine once it is available.
“Well, I think it’s the responsibility of everyone,” Adams said. “All of us have a responsibility to promote a healthy community.”
Many of the members of Congress we spoke with urged the public to consult with their doctors if they’re unsure about the vaccine.
“The confidence will come from the scientific community saying it is ready,” said. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). “No one should take my advice as an elected official about taking a vaccine.”
“The good news, it’s up to everybody’s opinion whether they want to take it,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).
Health experts said transparency in the process is key to get the public on board.
We asked the Surgeon General what his expectations were on when a vaccine may be available to the general public.
“We still believe that we will have a vaccine that is safe and effective by the end of this year or beginning of next year,” Adams said.
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