The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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The day after Mayor Muriel Bowser received the COVID-19 vaccine on camera, D.C. councilmembers received an email from Council Secretary Nyasha Smith. They, too, were eligible to get the shot, an email on Jan. 26 said.

“The news was a bit of a surprise,” At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson wrote in a Facebook post last Friday explaining why she chose to get the shot after some initial skepticism.

“I planned to treat this like the release of any new Apple product—never get the first generation,” Henderson wrote. But she was convinced after reading about the science behind the vaccine, hearing from Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black scientist who worked on Moderna’s vaccine, and talking with her friends and family in the medical field, who “almost uniformly were saying, even though the timeline was compressed and authorization expedited, it was safe.”

At-Large Councilmembers Robert White was the only other member to proactively announce that he’d been vaccinated.

“As soon as you’re able to get the shot, get it,” he tweeted Feb. 4. “Protect yourself and your family, do it for me and my family, and do it for our city 💉💪🏾❤️”

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau soon confirmed in a tweet that she’d gotten it and encouraged “other breastfeeding women to get it when it’s their turn.” Pregnant or breastfeeding people were not deliberately included in vaccine trials.

That last part, “when it’s their turn,” raises a few questions: Should young and seemingly healthy elected officials be eligible to receive the vaccine while other essential workers, who don’t have their hands on the levers of power, are not? Did they wait in line for an appointment like everyone else? How difficult was the process?

D.C. is currently in phase 1B, tier 2 of its vaccine distribution plan; law enforcement officials, teachers, and child care workers were added to the list of healthcare workers, long term care residents, fire and emergency medical employees, residents over 65 years old, and frontline public health workers, among others, who are already eligible to receive the shot. Although grocery store workers fall within phase 1B, tier 2, they are not yet eligible to receive the shot.

Nine councilmembers became eligible in late January, along with Bowser and about 50 D.C. government employees, under the “continuity of government operations” prioritization plan. LL confirmed that six of the nine members—Henderson, Robert White, Nadeau, Elissa Silverman (At-Large), Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), and Charles Allen (Ward 6)—opted to receive the vaccine. Council staffers are not eligible.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie chose not to get the shot when it was first offered because, in his view, DC Health had not, at that time, gone far enough to facilitate an equitable vaccine distribution system. Seniors had problems signing up for appointments, waiting hours on the phone, and the limited number of appointments fill up within minutes. So far, the distribution for seniors has tipped in favor of Ward 3, a wealthier and Whiter area of D.C. that has a lower infection and death rate than Wards 5, 7, and 8, areas where more Black residents live.

As of Feb. 6, D.C. has received 94,100 doses and administered 67,688, according to internal data. Although the number of seniors who’ve received the first dose and live in Wards 7 and 8 still lags behind those who live in Ward 3, McDuffie says he has since seen improvements to the distribution system.

DC Health is prioritizing doses by zip code, targeting residents in Wards 5, 7, and 8, and health officials started going door to door in Ward 8. DC Health is also opening a vaccine clinic at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Ward 7. Those efforts, McDuffie says, have assuaged much of his concern, and he intends to get the vaccine when it’s available to him again, though he’s unsure of when that will be.

“I will plan to get the vaccine to set an example for the many Black and Brown residents that are struggling to decide whether they should or should not take the vaccine,” McDuffie tells LL.

Neither Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, nor Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George have responded to LL’s phone calls and texts to confirm whether they’ve been vaccinated. White has expressed skepticism about vaccines in the past.

Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Vince Gray (Ward 7) and Anita Bonds (At-Large) qualified for and received the vaccine earlier because they’re all over 65. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh is also older than 65, but participated in the Moderna vaccine trial and received the shot that way.

Unlike members of Congress, whose members are also eligible for the vaccine under a “continuity of government” plan, the D.C. Council does not meet or vote in person. Although some members choose to work from the Wilson Building, they have the option to vote from home.

Eric Toner, a senior scholar for health security at Johns Hopkins University, says that on its face, D.C. councilmembers getting vaccinated “gives a very bad message.”

“In a time when one of the major themes right now is people who are wealthier and whiter and more powerful are finding ways to get in front of the queue, I think it looks bad,” he says. “I think on balance, the bad appearance of it outweighs any continuity of government argument.”

The biggest issue, in Toner’s opinion, is the policy that favors councilmembers over other essential workers who don’t qualify for age or health reasons. Phase 1B, tier 3, for example, includes U.S. Postal Service employees, people working in food packaging and distribution, bus drivers and mass transit workers, people working in health, human service and social service outreach programs, and courthouse staff. They are not yet eligible. Further down the list are drivers for ride-hailing services, public utility employees, and members of the media, among others. (Not that LL is complaining. He can do most of his work from his couch.)

“Whether they’re essential or not, they’re certainly not frontline,” Toner says. “They don’t have face-to-face contact with the general public like a grocery store clerk or bus driver.”

Although voting, the most essential part of their jobs, is done virtually, some councilmembers argue that their roles require them to be in public.

“Brooke, Janeese, and I have been out to [Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency] to meet with Director [Chris] Rodriguez,” Henderson says. “So there are various ways we are doing the functions of our job not just in front of the computer.”

Allen, who received the first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 29, showed up to the scene of an explosion at BridgePoint Hospital in Capitol Hill just the day before his shot.

“We all had to go indoors to make sure there’s a plan there,” he says. “Part of my job is going to require me to be active in the community, especially in an emergency setting.”

Allen has not previously spoken publicly about his decision to get vaccinated and says he planned to do so after the second dose.

On the other hand, Toner and other public health experts see a significant benefit particularly in Black councilmembers and elected leaders being public about their choice to get vaccinated.

Monica Schoch-Spana, another senior scholar with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, believes that the potential benefit from community leaders getting vaccinated and influencing those who are hesitant or skeptical, outweigh the perceived privilege.

“Because it’s been transparent, they’ve put themselves out there as role models for communities of color, particularly Black communities in their jurisdiction, [and] that is commendable,” she says. “And also by being transparent, putting themselves out there, their constituents can let them know how they feel about that, so there is accountability.”

Stephen Thomas, whose work for the University of Maryland, College Park focuses on overcoming the legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis study, echoes Schoch-Spana.

“For people who have real or perceived power, like elected officials, who want to take the shot publicly, then they have to take a shot at the broken healthcare system that allows them to sign up and get an appointment while my 81-year-old neighbor across the street can’t because she only has a flip phone,” Thomas says. “I want those people who have power to advocate for what she needs.”

Multiple councilmembers who spoke to LL about their decisions to get vaccinated described a fairly smooth path to the doctor’s office. They received an email from Smith, the Council’s secretary, announcing eligibility and those who opted to receive the shot provided Smith with personal information, and she facilitated the appointments.

At-large D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

“I’m not naive to the fact that there are a lot more people, like the sanitation workers who I see every day [who haven’t been vaccinated],” Henderson says. “I feel like I have a responsibility as a councilmember to continue to advocate for those individuals as much as I possibly can.”

She adds that it wasn’t clear when councilmembers would become eligible again if they declined their first chance. She references an op-ed in the New York Times that makes the case that healthy people offered the shot should take it and not feel guilty.

“We felt it was important, at least for my colleagues of color who I talked to, to get the vaccine to set an example, and it enables us, as we’re talking to our constituents, to give them our first person, real world experience,” Henderson says. “I’ve already gotten a couple messages from people who were on the fence and have decided to do it once it’s available to them.”

Nadeau and Allen, who are White, say their prioritization over other essential workers weighs on them as well. Both say they’re helping residents who are having trouble signing up for appointments.

“I’ve been critical of the system where people are competing against each other week after week for a limited number of spots,” Allen says. “So I’m very aware that there are more people who want the vaccine than doses available.”

Nadeau also says she’s participating in a survey of nursing moms who took the vaccine and hopes she can be a role model for other mothers. She notes that there are only 13 councilmembers, and if, god forbid, one went down, it could significantly impact government operations, especially as budget season approaches.

“We’re not first. There were thousands of people vaccinated before we were, and those things matter,” Nadeau says. “At the end of the day the public will decide how they feel about it.”

Thomas, the UMD health professor, speaks directly to vaccinated councilmembers and other elected officials:

“If you’re in a position to finally get your shot, and you’re in a position of authority and power, you cannot relax,” he says. “Now reach out and find someone who can’t get online. Help them get their appointment. Each one, teach one.”