Donald Trump pinned all his hopes for ending the pandemic on a vaccine, but as shots started going into American arms this week, the president has barely acknowledged the moment and has wavered on when he’ll be inoculated.
The first shipments of a coronavirus vaccine created by Pfizer and German company BioNTech arrived on Monday, with front-line health-care workers receiving injections on live television to mark the occasion. The rollout coincides with the U.S. setting records for daily cases, daily deaths, and hospitalizations.
The president has had little to say about any of it, beyond a single congratulatory tweet buried among a stream of false assertions and conspiracy theories about the election he lost. He has not made a public appearance since Saturday, when he attended the Army-Navy football game at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Trump’s administration bet heavily on fast-tracking vaccine development, defying critics who said it would be nearly impossible for a shot to reach consumers less than a year after the coronavirus hit American shores.
The White House is now preparing to publicly inoculate a handful of officials in an event to celebrate the breakthrough and encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Vice President Mike Pence, who is not known to have contracted the virus, said he’ll receive a vaccination within days, but his office declined to say if it would be in front of cameras.
Pence will lead a meeting of the coronavirus task force on Wednesday at the White House, which Trump will not attend.
Public vaccination of top government officials, including the president, is regarded as a confidence-booster by health authorities for Americans wary of the shots. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, has said he intends to receive an injection in public as soon as practicable.
But Trump said Sunday he is not “scheduled” to be vaccinated, after Bloomberg News reported that top White House officials including the president had been given priority for shots. His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany—who has called the shots the “Trump vaccine”—wouldn’t say Monday whether Trump would be vaccinated while he’s still in office.
“He will receive the vaccine as soon as the medical team determines it’s best,” she said. “These are vaccines that he oversaw the development of, he has great confidence in. He wants to see all Americans get this vaccine and he wants to see the most vulnerable among us get it first.”
President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday that he would get the vaccine in public, but also didn’t say when. “Dr. Fauci recommends I get the vaccine sooner than later. I want to make sure that we do it by the numbers and when I do it you’ll have notice and we’ll do it publicly.”
The course of the pandemic has become intertwined with Trump’s own political fortunes. The U.S. outbreak soared under his watch, with far more publicly reported cases and deaths than anywhere else in the world, even as Trump promised the virus would fade away and downplayed its danger. Most Americans rated his handling of the crisis poorly, opening the door for Biden’s victory.
But now the efficacy of the U.S. vaccination campaign rests in part with Trump. Before he was president, Trump gave credence to the American anti-vaccine movement by publicly questioning the childhood vaccine schedule and suggesting, falsely, that pediatric inoculations may be linked to autism.
Former presidents have already volunteered to publicly take the vaccine as a signal of its efficacy. Recent polls have shown that confidence in the vaccine is increasing but that many Americans still harbor doubts.
Fauci, who has agreed to be the new president’s top medical adviser, said Tuesday that the pandemic will only truly be curbed when 75% or 80% of Americans are vaccinated.
McEnany said Trump was trying to send a “parallel message” by waiting to get it himself: promoting the vaccine as safe but wanting higher-risk groups to receive it first. Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 in October, and the president has described himself as “immune,” though the extent and duration of protection from naturally attained antibodies is unknown.
“Even though the president himself was infected, and he has, likely, antibodies that likely would be protective, we’re not sure how long that protection lasts. So, to be doubly sure, I would recommend that he get vaccinated as well as the vice-president,” Fauci said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’d get the shot when his turn comes and encouraged other leaders to do so. “I think all of us who do have at least some following in the country need to step up—as the former presidents are and as I’m sure people in the entertainment world will as well—to encourage people to do this,” McConnell said Tuesday. “It’s the right thing to do for yourself, for your family and for the country.”
Trump has said he’d be criticized for getting a shot too early.
“If I’m the first one, they will say, ‘He’s so selfish, he wanted to get the vaccine first,’” he said in a Fox News interview over the summer, before he was infected. “Either way, I lose on that one, right?”
By many metrics, the pandemic is worse than ever, and continues to worsen. Trump has met the milestones with silence, saying nothing on Friday when daily deaths hit a record of 3,306, or on Monday when there were 264,000 new cases, also a record. He hasn’t asked Americans to do anything to slow transmission of the virus, such as wearing masks.
Pence has found himself filling the vacuum. At a roundtable event on the vaccine rollout Tuesday in his home state of Indiana, he assured Americans the vaccine is safe and pledged to get a shot himself.
“We have come to the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic in America, but as I expect you will hear from our panel and you’ll continue to hear, we have a ways to go,” he said. “Wear a mask and put the health of your family and your neighbors first.”
The Pfizer vaccine’s arrival, with others expected to follow shortly, will focus attention on distribution efforts, the infrastructure developed by the Trump administration and the question of who should receive shots first.
‘Instilling public confidence’
McEnany said Tuesday that two groups of White House officials would get an early vaccine. “Some career staff, national security staff, for the purposes of continuity of government, will have access, in addition to a very small group of senior administration officials for the purpose of instilling public confidence,” she said.
McEnany, like Trump himself and several White House staff, tested positive for the virus earlier this year. She said she “absolutely would be open to taking the vaccine.”
Moncef Slaoui, a leader of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” program to accelerate vaccine development, also said Tuesday that both Biden and Trump should be inoculated.
“It is very important that our leaders, departing ones and arriving ones, are protected. And I think both President Trump and President-elect Biden, they are both parts of the higher age group and, therefore, higher risk. So, yes, I think they should be vaccinated,” he told CNN. “That’s an example for the population to follow.”