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  • Writer's pictureAlexssa Takeda

COVID-19 Vaccine Update: The Political Divide

(Hakan Narul/Unsplash)

As the United States surpasses 19 million COVID-19 cases, the recent authorization of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine on December 11 with Moderna following quickly behind on December 18 has evoked mixed responses from the public along with leading political figures.

Vaccines and Distribution

Both authorized vaccines were developed with messenger RNA, a new type of vaccine which uses the genetic information in the virus to force the body to create essential antibodies to protect against COVID-19. While both vaccines require two doses, the second Pfizer dose is administered 21 days after the first while Moderna’s is 28 days after the first. In addition, the Pfizer vaccine is required to be stored at 70 degrees Celsius, which is comparable to the average temperature in Antarctica. Moderna’s can be stored at standard freezer temperature. And after final analysis of the two vaccines, they have promising efficacy rates of 94.1 percent and 95 percent.

Compared to other vaccines, this is good news. Influenza vaccines, for instance, are between 40 and 60 percent effective, due to how often influenza evolves from year to year. As of now, these vaccines are being distributed to 21 million health care workers and three million elderly nursing home residents.

Unfortunately, administering the vaccine didn’t come without obstacles. Hospitals began planning to spend a few weeks determining who should receive the vaccine first. Some had a more randomized approach, while others based vaccination priority on the level of risk presented by each job.

Frontline nurses and doctors at Stanford Medical Center (SMC) began protesting on December 18 against the system’s vaccine distribution plan when they weren’t prioritized to receive the vaccine. Instead, doses were allocated to higher-ups, including administrators and doctors who worked from home and therefore weren’t in contact with the virus on a daily basis.

“Residents and fellows were essentially not included in the first round of vaccines despite working 80+ hours per week in the hospital treating COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Earth Hasassari, a psychiatric doctor as SMC tweeted. Stanford Medical later released a statement to take responsibility for the issues with the vaccine rollout: “We apologize to our entire community, including our residents, fellows, and other frontline care providers, who have performed heroically during our pandemic response. We are immediately revising our plan to better sequence the distribution of the vaccine.”

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci received the Moderna vaccine on December 22 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).(NIAID/Flickr)

Public Skepticism Decreases

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the top COVID-19 advisors, estimated up to 70 to 85 percent of the population needs to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19. It was a reassuring sign for public health experts when they found American willingness to take the vaccine had significantly increased since the vaccines were authorized and doses were distributed. In a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 71 percent of Americans are willing to be vaccinated, which is a significant increase from the 63 percent reported in September.

Some hesitation stems from questioning the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the most commonly reported side effects were pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, and other fever-like symptoms. Additionally, groups have reported severe adverse effects after receiving the vaccines. One of the first cases was found in Alaska when a health care worker suffered an allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, within 10 minutes of receiving the first Pfizer dose. The Boston Medical Center also confirmed on December 25 that an employee developed an allergic reaction after receiving the Moderna vaccine.

Fortunately, all individuals recovered, and the FDA is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the cause of these effects: “We’ll be looking at all of the data we can from each of these reactions to sort out exactly what happened, and we’ll also be looking to try to understand which component of the vaccine might be helping produce them.”

There also appears to be a partisan divide when it comes to who is willing to be vaccinated. The same survey found that Republicans were more likely to be hesitant, with 42 percent saying they would probably not or definitely will not get the vaccine, compared to 12 percent of Democrats.

This “anti-vax” movement usually isn’t limited to a specific political party, and can be seen across the board. But political experts say that the divide over vaccination may stem from President Trump, who has previously discredited scientists and expressed a lack of concern over the virus. Although he was quick to take credit saying, “the vaccines were me, and I pushed people harder than they’ve ever been pushed before,” he has yet to be inoculated. “I am not scheduled to take the vaccine,” he tweeted, “but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time.”

Political Figures Baring Arms

With only a limited amount of doses in the U.S., members of Congress have also been prioritized to receive the vaccine. But many people are questioning if these individuals are setting an example for the American people, or if they are, so to speak, cutting the line.

President-elect Joe Biden received his first dose on live television and reassured Americans of the vaccine’s safety: “I want to make it clear to the public: you should have confidence in this. There is no political influence. These are first-rate scientists, taking their time, looking at all the elements that need to be looked at.”

On December 18, Vice President Mike Pence, who was responsible for the government’s pandemic response, received the vaccine to “promote the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and build confidence among the American people,” according to the administration. Pence, along with many other GOP lawmakers, have faced criticism and disapproval due to their past attitudes and comments, downplaying COVID-19. One of the most notable ways Pence has violated CDC guidelines is by attending Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation event at the White House, which was deemed a “super spreader event” because of the packed crowd and the lack of social distancing. He also told the Wall Street Journal that “such panic is overblown,” regarding concern about a second wave of coronavirus cases.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham also stirred debate on social media after he tweeted, “Thank God for those who produced the vaccines. If enough of us take it, we will get back to normal lives.” On December 19, he took his first dose of the vaccine. Many brought up the point that Graham had previously refused to get tested for coronavirus before his debate during his reelection campaign, and refused to postpone Barrett’s confirmation hearing after being exposed to the virus.

South Carolina Nurses Association president Kelly Bouthillet described Graham’s inoculation as a “slap in the face” to the medical professionals still waiting to get their shots. “It’s appalling that it’s going to politicians who have not taken the virus seriously, even denying the surges now shooting off the charts, instead of to health and emergency workers,” she said. “It makes me very angry.”

Graham’s spokesman said that this backlash was virtually inevitable: “Refuse the vaccine and be criticized for encouraging others to get it, yet you won’t go first. Take the vaccine early and face criticism for cutting the line.”

There is criticism within the Democratic Party as well. Representative Ilhan Omar made several statements in late December, which shamed politicians and their staff for taking the COVID-19 vaccine before the majority of Americans. “We are not more important [than] frontline workers, teachers, etc. who are making sacrifices [every day]. Which is why I won’t take it,” she wrote in a tweet, “People who need it most, should get it.” This would include Omar’s fellow Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who received a dose and answered questions about her experience over social media.

Cortez recorded herself getting the Pfizer vaccine on her Instagram story. "I'd never advise you to do something I wasn't willing to do myself," she said, via Instagram.

Republican Senator Rand Paul directly addressed Cortez in a tweet in which he explained that he wouldn’t be getting the vaccine, writing, “It is inappropriate for me ― who has already gotten the virus/had immunity ― to get in front of elderly/healthcare workers. Same goes for AOC or any young healthy person.” Cortez later defended her decision, blaming Republicans for distrust of the vaccine. In addition, she expressed that it would be hypocritical for leaders to endorse and urge a vaccine they themselves weren’t taking.

Leslie Frannis, University of Utah professor of law and philosophy, explained that she understands the protest many have against politicians getting the vaccine. However, she argues that they could be losing sight of the benefit of convincing skeptics who trust American leaders: “Another thing we can do is saying, ‘Look, we don’t believe in getting down into the mud. We think the appropriate basis to distribute vaccines is: Are you doing something essential? Can you avoid the risk? Are you at greater risk? Is there any reason in terms of public trust or public taking of vaccines to give it to you?’”

Even though the vaccine is beginning to be available, that doesn’t mean that the public is free to stop following CDC guidelines. Fauci explained, “a vaccine should not be a substitute for public health measures. It should be a complement to public health measures. And only after this virus is really under extraordinarily good control, can you start pulling back on public health measures.”


Vaccines and Distribution

Public Skepticism Decreases

Political Figures Baring Arms


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