President Trump said on Sunday night that he would delay a plan for senior White House staff members to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, hours after The New York Times reported that the administration was planning to rapidly distribute the vaccine to its staff at a time when the first doses are generally being reserved for high-risk health care workers.
Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus in October and recovered after being hospitalized, also implied that he would get the vaccine himself at some point in the future, but said he had no immediate plans to do so.
“People working in the White House should receive the vaccine somewhat later in the program, unless specifically necessary,” Mr. Trump tweeted, hours after a National Security Council spokesman had defended the plan. “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!”
It was not immediately clear why the president decided to change the policy, or whether he had even been aware of it ahead of time. But White House staff members who work in close quarters with him had been told that they were scheduled to receive injections of the coronavirus vaccine soon, two people familiar with the distribution plans said.
The goal of distributing the vaccine in the West Wing was to prevent additional government officials from falling ill in the final weeks of the Trump administration. The hope was to eventually distribute the vaccine to everyone who works in the White House, one of the people said.
It was not clear how many doses were being allocated to the White House or how many were needed, since many staff members had already tested positive for the virus and recovered. While many Trump officials said they were eager to receive the vaccine and would take it if it were offered, others said they were concerned it would send the wrong message by making it appear as if Trump staff members were hopping the line to protect a president who has already recovered from the virus and bragged that he is now “immune.”
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine left a facility in Michigan early Sunday, with UPS and FedEx teaming up to ship doses to all 50 states for distribution.
“Senior officials across all three branches of government will receive vaccinations pursuant to continuity of government protocols established in executive policy,” John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council, had said in a statement earlier Sunday, defending the planned vaccinations. “The American people should have confidence that they are receiving the same safe and effective vaccine as senior officials of the United States government.”
The picture was murky on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have struggled for months to balance the need to carry on with legislative business despite fluctuating numbers of coronavirus cases in its own ranks. A congressional aide said on Sunday evening that leaders on Capitol Hill had not yet been told how many doses would initially be available for lawmakers. Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, has overseen the coronavirus response inside the Capitol complex, but he has yet to make public any plans for vaccine distribution there.
A transition official said President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. planned to consult with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and take the vaccine publicly when Dr. Fauci recommended he do so. Mr. Biden said in a recent CNN interview that he wanted to serve as an example. “It’s important to communicate to the American people it’s safe; it’s safe to do this,” Mr. Biden said.
After months during which Mr. Trump and his senior advisers played down the virus, hosting campaign rallies and holiday parties where face masks were encouraged but never required, the news of White House officials suddenly taking the virus seriously enough to claim early doses of a vaccine had been greeted by outrage from Democrats as well as the president’s longtime critics.
George T. Conway III, a prominent conservative lawyer and a vocal critic of Mr. Trump, noted that because the vaccine required a second dose 21 to 28 days after the first injection, there was little public benefit for White House staff members to receive them. The president has only 37 days left in office.
“If they were truly interested in protecting staffers,” Mr. Conway wrote on Twitter, “they would have been better off not holding super spreader events.”
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Tim Hogan, a Democratic consultant and a former top aide to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign, said that Washington “will not come close to covering every health care worker with its first allotment of the vaccine, but a White House that downplayed the virus and held a half-year nationwide super spreader tour gets to cut the line.”
He called the White House’s original vaccination plan “a final middle finger to the nurses and doctors on the front lines from the Trump administration.”
Before Mr. Trump unexpectedly reversed course, a senior administration official had said that vaccinating officials was necessary for “providing visible leadership to the nation and the world, and maintaining the trust and confidence of the American people.” The official added that vaccinating West Wing officials would help to “continue essential operations, without interruption” to help continue to fight the pandemic nationwide.
There have been multiple outbreaks of the coronavirus at the White House in recent months. Mr. Trump, the first lady and a half-dozen advisers tested positive at the end of September and in early October. Dr. Fauci later called a Rose Garden ceremony to announce Mr. Trump’s choice of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court a “super spreader event.”
A few weeks later, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and a group of other Pence staff members and advisers tested positive.
And a third wave hit the West Wing after the president’s election night party at the White House, where supporters gathered indoors and did not wear masks. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, got sick around that time, as did a number of other Trump advisers.
Most recently, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani tested positive, along with Jenna Ellis, another lawyer on the president’s legal team.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.