OKLAHOMA CITY — While many state lawmakers say they plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine eventually, dozens reported that they have opted out for now despite receiving expedited access.
In January, legislative leaders announced that vaccination access was a part of the Legislature’s pandemic precaution protocols. The expectation was that by early in session “a large majority of the Legislature will have been vaccinated in the interest of continuity of government.”
Curious about how many lawmakers actually opted into the vaccine by the second week of session, CNHI Oklahoma emailed and called all 147 state lawmakers to ask them one question: Had they received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?
In the 101-member House, 64 responded. Of those, 33 had received a vaccination; 26 had not; and 6 would not say. The remaining 36 refused to respond.
State Senate members were less forthcoming about their vaccination status. Of the 47 contacted, only 20 responded. Of those, 10 reported being vaccinated, 7 hadn’t and three would not say. The remaining 27 refused to respond.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt also hasn’t been vaccinated, a spokeswoman said.
While several lawmakers were previously eligible under the state’s priority framework because they were either health care workers, first responders or at least 65 years old, other previously ineligible lawmakers described the choice to get vaccinated early as a catch-22.
“The optics of it will look terrible to a lot of people, but lawmakers were in the second phase, even federally,” said state Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, who has been vaccinated because of his work crafting legislative policy this session.
With soaring demand and limited COVID-19 vaccine doses available, many lawmakers said they struggled with the ethical choice of taking it ahead of more vulnerable Oklahomans — such as teachers and constituents who are older and more vulnerable to complications.
“It was a difficult decision, with lots of guilt, because we are no different than any citizen we represent,” said state Rep. Denise Brewer, D-Tulsa. “Leadership convinced me to get the vaccine because the state of Oklahoma is in such bad shape, we need everyone here healthy, focused and ready for a very busy session.”
At the same time, some lawmakers said they feared the consequences of potentially catching COVID-19 at the state Capitol and inadvertently taking it home to their at-risk family members or spreading it to vulnerable constituents in their home districts hundreds of miles away.
“I feel a bit guilty getting the shot ahead of so many elderly people who need it,” said state Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore. “When they were made available to us legislators as part of ‘essential,’ I sort of chuckled, but then I realized that with session, even with observing protocols, I would be around lots of people, and possibly carrying something home to Claremore.”
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said he took the vaccine because his role requires him to travel the state and work all the time.
“I did not want to be someone who potentially could spread it to somebody else,” he said.
McCall said legislators followed federal guidelines that recommended the vaccine be made available to legislators. Oklahoma’s federal congressional delegation had access months before state legislators, McCall said.
“We don’t know who opted for it, and who opted not to at this time,” McCall said. “That is their medical privacy, and we’ll be respectful of it.”
Others need it more
Five Republican House lawmakers, meanwhile, responded that they’d already had COVID-19. Two said they are temporarily ineligible because they’d been sick within the past 90 days.
State Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, said she’s twice now had COVID-19. She said she isn’t sure she will even take the vaccine immediately once she’s eligible because she’ll have temporary protection from antibodies.
“I feel like I would be very selfish to take a vaccine when there are those who need it more,” she said.
The majority of the lawmakers who said they hadn’t yet been vaccinated said they plan to, but want to wait until it is more widely available.
State Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, said he’s 53 and in good health with no co-morbitidies. He’s been largely able to control his interactions with other lawmakers, staff and the public and implement safeguards like masking and distancing.
“Given that, I have decided to hold off on receiving the vaccination until our vulnerable population, frontline workers and teachers have all had a chance to be vaccinated,” he said. “When there is ample supply, I absolutely intend to be vaccinated. I just do not want to jump in front of anyone who needs access to the limited supply more than I do.”
State Rep. Trey Caldwell, R-Lawton, who has recovered from COVID-19, said he supports vaccinations, but ethically struggles “with jumping in line.”
If he wasn’t a lawmaker, he said he wouldn’t be eligible until Oklahoma’s final phase; he's opted to wait.
State Rep. David Smith, R-Arpelar, said he feels like there are people in his district who currently need the vaccine more than he does.
“I wouldn’t take it until every one of them had already taken it,” he said. “I don’t think (our job) puts us above the people. In all actuality, that kind of lowers us because we work for them. Why should we jump to the head of the line because we’re lawmakers?”
As a more rural lawmaker, Smith said it’s easier to social distance among his constituents than it would be for urban legislators.
State Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell, said fewer than 5% of residents in his home county of Adair had had the chance to be vaccinated. The county had the second worst vaccination rate in the state, just behind Nowata County, state records showed.
Every day, Hardin said he hears from desperate constituents trying to access the vaccine.
“Until everybody in District 86 has the opportunity to take it, I won’t even think about taking it,” he said. “I understand the government thing, but I don’t think I deserve any special privileges.”
Even when it’s widely available, Hardin said he’s not certain he’ll take the vaccine because he suffered a heart attack in July. He said he has questions about how it will interact with his heart medications and isn’t convinced the vaccines have been tested with all the medications.
“I realize I might be rolling the dice, but I’m 62 years old, and I’ve rolled it before, and I’m still here,” he said.
State Rep. J.J. Humphrey, R-Lane, said he doesn’t plan to take the vaccine at all.
“I don’t know exactly what’s in it,” he said.
Humphrey said he’s previously had COVID-19 was treated with hydroxychloroquine and has recovered.
But he said he doesn’t want his personal decision to deter others from taking it.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.