Of all the ways the White House has received special treatment during this pandemic—the gatherings, the low mask use, and the experimental treatments—jumping the vaccine line might seem like the most privileged. But strangely, it could be the only one of these moves to help the rest of us—if the president can be persuaded to cooperate.
On Sunday, Bloomberg and The New York Times reported the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be offered as soon as Monday to President Trump and those working closely with him. The primary reason cited was national security, to keep key officials in the White House working as the United States sees an unprecedented surge in cases and deaths. This would mean the White House goes ahead of many medical providers, first responders, and nursing homes in getting early doses of the much-anticipated Covid-19 vaccine.
President Trump’s Twitter account immediately pushed back against the reporting. “People working in the White House should receive the vaccine somewhat later in the program, unless specifically necessary,” he tweeted. “I have asked that this adjustment be made. I am not scheduled to take the vaccine, but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time. Thank you!”
Health experts on Twitter quickly pointed out that, technically, the vaccine is contraindicated for President Trump and his close circle: The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was not tested in people who received convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibodies, as Trump did two months ago and others have done since then. The antibodies could spur an unanticipated response to the vaccine, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends waiting at least three months after the treatment to get the shots.
But there was another reason cited for vaccinating the White House on Sunday. “The American people should have confidence that they are receiving the same safe and effective vaccine as senior officials of the United States government on the advice of public health professionals and national security leadership,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement before Trump announced he would delay his vaccination. In terms of building public trust, some health experts agree the benefits of Trump publicly receiving the vaccine could outweigh the potential downfalls.
“I am honestly thrilled to hear this news,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine and public health at Brown University, told me by email, in the brief period Sunday evening when it looked like Trump would be vaccinated. “I have been calling for months for the executive branch to model essential public health behaviors, such as mask-wearing and avoiding indoor get-togethers.”
The most recent polls suggest only 60 percent of people in the U.S. would get a vaccine if it were offered to them today. That’s not enough for society to reap the full benefits of a vaccination drive. Having highly visible public figures receive the vaccine, however, helps the public realize the importance and safety of becoming immunized. Past presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have pledged to receive the shots publicly. And the partisan gap between those planning to be vaccinated is wide—69 percent of Democrats versus 50 percent of Republicans. Trump’s publicized vaccination could go a long way toward reassuring his supporters and others who have hesitated over the speed at which the vaccines have been produced.
The benefits of consequential public figures leading by example are worth giving up a few shots that would have gone to health workers and other vulnerable people, Ranney said. “As many of us have said for a while: If Trump would just wear a mask, we’d see compliance and infection rates change dramatically. The same is true for the vaccine,” she said. That doesn’t mean all wealthy and powerful people should cut ahead of the rest of us, though. “Far more concerning would be other powerful Americans, such as sports figures and business owners, jumping the line,” Ranney said. “If it isn’t for a major P.R. push, it’s not appropriate to divert large numbers of vaccines from those at risk to those with money or power.”
Public figures’ vaccinations could also be helpful if they include information about what the vaccine does and does not do. It’s important to counter the idea that the vaccine will immediately protect you and those around you, experts say. It takes at least a month from the first shot for full protection to set in. If White House officials receive the first dose of the vaccine on Monday, followed by the booster three weeks later, they would enjoy full protection a week after that, on January 11. Since the vaccine will be rolled out in the White House over 10 days, allowing for time off due to side effects, the Trump administration wouldn’t be protected until January 21—incidentally, the day after Joe Biden takes office.
Martin Kenyon, a 91-year-old man who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on the first day it was available in the U.K., told CNN he was looking forward to hugging his grandchildren at Christmas. Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, was watching the segment. “Immediately, my heart sank,” he told me. “Please, wait until a week after the second vaccine.” The first error with understanding how these vaccines work, he said, is believing that you’re immediately immune after the first injection goes into your arm.
The second error is that “we don’t yet know whether these vaccines halt the spread of the virus rather than just decrease the severity of disease.” That means the senior officials who receive the shots would eventually be protected against Covid-19 symptoms. But they could still contract and spread the virus—and, if they have no symptoms or mild symptoms, they might not even know they carry the virus, thus putting other White House officials and staff at greater risk, especially at the 25 holiday parties the White House has planned for the next few weeks. It’s important for everyone to understand this delay in protection from the vaccine and what it means for social gatherings and continuing to take precautions, Faust said.
While high-profile vaccination campaigns can be very successful at easing public hesitations, Jeffrey Flier, a professor of physiology and medicine and the former dean of the faculty of medicine at Harvard University, told me by email, he worries that “others may just conclude government officials are hypocrites and dishonest, which is bad.” This is particularly true of a White House that has “publicly downplayed concerns about [the] virus and use of masks and social distancing while lining up to receive early vaccinations,” he said.
From the beginning, the Trump administration has downplayed and mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic. The president frequently brags that he is now “immune” from the virus, and has eschewed measures that would prevent its further spread, like social distancing, mask wearing, and canceling public events. For months, the White House’s unofficial policy was to allow the virus to spread unchecked. At least two gatherings at the White House, as well as Trump’s numerous campaign rallies, appear to have been superspreading events that infected officials and staff, many of whom didn’t have access to the care available to Trump’s inner circle.
This high-level vaccination campaign is a major opportunity, if it seizes it, for the Trump administration to lead with science and by example. But it’s still unclear whether Trump and other officials, including those who have recently recovered from the virus, will actually accept the vaccine. (The Washington Post reported that Vice President Pence should receive it soon.) This part is key: Trump himself and other high-level officials need to get the vaccine, not only lower-profile staffers. Otherwise, the vaccinations would likely not have the same effect on the public’s perception—and would only reinforce the idea that Trump’s inner circle has access to special treatments that the rest of us do not.