For weeks, images of lawmakers from both parties getting their Covid-19 vaccinations have appeared on TV and across social media, in an effort to boost public confidence in the shots.
But there are now a few high-profile leaders who have chosen to forgo the early vaccines.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York shared his stance on when he would get the vaccine sharply this week: “I’m not going to take the vaccine until the same people are eligible and it is available in the Black and Hispanic and poor communities in this state.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said that he would wait until older Americans could get vaccinated. “It makes no sense for someone that’s 42 to jump ahead of someone that’s 70 years old,” he said.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., in his 70s, did not raise any eyebrows when he was inoculated. But other, younger politicians have chosen to be vaccinated, including Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, where the vaccine rollout is struggling.
The easy vaccine access for top elected officials, as regular Americans wait in long lines and distribution falls short of its goals, raises ethical questions: Should the nation’s leaders come before older Americans or those with severe health risks? On top of that, should their families and even congressional aides be at the front of the line? Republicans and Democrats alike have argued over the issue; Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Represenative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota both said it was not appropriate to jump the line.
“We have such a limited supply. There needs to be a decision made about priorities,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and Baltimore’s former health commissioner. “I understand at a certain level that elected officials need to be getting the vaccine for the purposes of continuity of government,” but, she added, “what is the most essential? Is it an I.C.U. physician or is it a congressional aide?”
She cited the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which prioritize high-risk and essential worker populations, and noted that many essential workers were less able to work remotely than politicians are.
“I think that really corrodes trust — when people don’t understand why the top-tier at-risk group isn’t the only group getting something,” said Arthur Caplan, the director of NYU Langone’s Division of Medical Ethics.
For other experts, though, the focus is on increasing public trust in the vaccine, and messiness in the priority groups is expected. “Trusted messengers” are key to vaccine confidence, said Lindsey Leininger, a Dartmouth professor who leads Dear Pandemic, a public education campaign about the pandemic.
There are also risks for the public perception in creating a “negative impression of people with influence and connections cutting in line, that undermines that whole notion of trust,” Dr. Caplan noted.