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 (R-Fla.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep.-elect Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), 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 (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 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.”
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.”
“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, Graham and Rubio for comment.
“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.
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.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.