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    Thursday, October 21, 2004

    The Special Ones: Why is it not surprising that members of Congress are making sure they get flu shots, regardless of their risk?

    While many Americans search in vain for flu shots, members and employees of Congress are able to obtain them quickly and at no charge from the Capitol's attending physician, who has urged all 535 lawmakers to get the vaccines even if they are young and healthy.

    The physician's office has dispensed nearly 2,000 flu shots this fall, and doses remained available yesterday. That is a steep drop from last year's 9,000 shots, a spokesman for attending physician John F. Eisold said, because many congressional employees have voluntarily abided by federal guidelines that call for this season's limited supply to go mainly to the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, long-term-care patients and people with chronic illnesses.

    But people of all ages who are credentialed to work in the Capitol can get a shot by saying they meet the guidelines, with no further questions asked, said the spokesman, who cited office policy in demanding anonymity.

    "We leave it up to people to read the guidelines" issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and then to state whether they want the shot, Eisold's spokesman said. "We don't ask. We trust people. . . . Most of the people have been very good."

    The policy applies to thousands of legislative staffers, police officers, construction workers, restaurant employees, journalists and others who work in the Capitol complex.

    Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), a heart surgeon, sent letters urging his 99 colleagues to get the shots because they mingle and shake hands with so many people, his spokeswoman, Amy Call, said. She said she did not know how many senators have taken his advice.

    Eisold "is a big believer that members of Congress are at high risk, because they shake hands with a lot of people" and then visit veterans centers and other concentrations of susceptible people, his spokesman said. Because lawmakers can be both victims and spreaders of flu, he said, Eisold urged all 535 to get the shots.

    ....The office of the Capitol's attending physician began dispensing the vaccine as soon as it arrived on Sept. 30, the spokesman said. After the CDC announced on Oct. 5 the guidelines addressing the shortage, he said, the office began asking applicants to read the guidelines and to decide whether they wanted a flu shot.

    Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who is 50, said he got a flu shot as soon as it was available, 'before I knew there was a problem.'

    Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), 62, said in an interview yesterday: 'I haven't done it yet, but I want to. We're not in the priority category' set by the CDC. 'But I think the [Capitol's] doctor makes a good case. We can pick it up and spread it' through interactions with constituents.

    The Capitol's doctor's argument is a weak one. Shame on them. And shame on Bill Frist, too. He should know better.

    UPDATE: Slate's Timothy Noah says Frist isn't as irresponsible as the story made him sound, maybe.

    UPDATE II: Congress has donated their vaccine to Washington, D.C. That's good. Too bad it took an unflattering article in the Washington Post to motivate them.

    (Editorial note: This has been edited to remove the unintended double-posting earlier.)

    posted by Sydney on 10/21/2004 09:44:00 PM 0 comments


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