WASHINGTON — Sitting on the stage of a National Institutes of Health auditorium Tuesday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci rolled up the sleeve of his blue dress shirt and received the first dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine.
“Many in our nation are saying, ‘If Dr. Fauci gets the vaccine, I’m going to get the vaccine,’” observed Colleen McGowan, the NIH research director who emceed the event at the institutes’ Maryland headquarters.
The Moderna vaccine is the second to be authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, a week after Pfizer received the same fast-tracked authorization for its vaccine. The Trump administration is in the process of shipping out some 8 million doses of the vaccines (which require both an initial and a booster shot) this week.
The coronavirus continues to kill more than 2,000 people across the nation each day. At the same time, Americans’ willingness to take the vaccine has been rising, a new USA Today poll finds. Tuesday’s event was meant to further increase that confidence and to counter false claims about the vaccine that have circulated on the internet. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, as well as other administration officials and congressional leaders, have also received vaccinations in televised events. President Trump has not been vaccinated, and no plans for him to receive the shots have been announced.
Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, emerged in the spring as the nation’s most trusted source of information on the coronavirus. His visibility and popularity appeared to provoke jealousy on the part of the president, who also reportedly wearied of Fauci’s warnings about social distancing and other mitigation measures, which contradicted the White House’s preferred, more optimistic messaging.
Shortly before November’s presidential election, Trump even threatened to fire Fauci, who has worked for every president since Ronald Reagan, earning acclaim as one of the very first American public health authorities to sound a warning about the then new virus that would come to be known as HIV.
Instead, it is Trump who will be leaving Washington without a job in January, while Fauci will continue to occupy the same Bethesda, Md., office that has been his home for four decades. President-elect Joe Biden has named Fauci a top coronavirus adviser.
None of the speakers at the event mentioned Trump or Pence, the head of his coronavirus task force, in marked contrast to White House briefings throughout the spring, during which the president was showered with praise for his “decisive leadership.” Trump appears to have largely lost interest in combating the pandemic while he focuses on trying to overturn the results of November’s presidential election, which he lost to Biden by millions of votes.
For his part, Fauci said he was getting the vaccine “as a symbol to the rest of the country.” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and NIH Director Francis Collins were also immunized during the event, which was broadcast live.
“I want the American people to know that I have absolute and complete confidence in the integrity and the independence of the processes used by the FDA to approve these vaccines,” Azar said as he prepared for the shot. “That I have complete confidence in the safety and efficacy of these vaccines.”
The whole event was symbolic, intended to reassure a public that has been buffeted by powerful currents of misinformation about the vaccine. There have also been legitimate concerns from African Americans who distrust a medical establishment historically steeped in racism.
The first to receive the vaccine at Tuesday’s event were NIH employees, including several people of color. Medical workers are currently receiving the vaccine across the nation. Nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations will be vaccinated within the coming weeks, with the general population set to be inoculated sometime in 2021.
Public health officials disagree on how quickly widespread vaccinations can be rolled out. Epidemiologists believe the hoped-for “herd immunity” will take hold once 70 percent of the population has been vaccinated (or has achieved immunity by recovering from a bout with the coronavirus).
McGowan was the last official to receive the vaccine. She did so, she said, as a mother who wanted to reassure “naysayer friends.” She added that she would be posting a video of her vaccination to Facebook, where misinformation about the safety of vaccines — whether for the coronavirus or other illnesses — has found an all-too-comfortable home.
Clad in a black T-shirt, Collins tried to inject a little lighthearted reassurance into a process that is fraught with medical, logistical and ethical complexities.
“That was no problem, people,” he said.
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