Ending COVID-19: A reporter’s vaccination story

Details of the vaccinations provided to the federal workforce have remained largely opaque

Three potential COVID-19 vaccines are kept in a tray at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Three potential COVID-19 vaccines are kept in a tray at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 8, 2021 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — Last December, I spent an afternoon as the White House print pool reporter in the south court auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the outgoing Trump administration’s vaccine summit.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence headlined a gathering with a variety of logistics partners, including retail pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS as well as shippers FedEx and UPS. The four companies would be key partners with the government in getting COVID-19 vaccine supplies from pharmaceutical factories to people around the country.

It was after that event that I decided I wanted more of a window into the vaccine development process and to play a small role myself in ending this pandemic. So I registered as a potential volunteer for clinical trials.

Shortly after New Year’s Day, I received a call from a vaccine research site at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore inviting me to participate in a trial for the vaccine being developed by Novavax, a biotech firm based in Gaithersburg, Md.

I asked if there were any study sites closer to my home in Washington and was informed that I should contact Howard University Hospital, which actually is within walking distance of my residence.

Among the questions asked in determining qualifications for the trial was whether I worked in person in a congregate setting where I had a risk of being exposed to COVID-19. The reality is I do — and it’s still a bit weird telling medical professionals that my high-risk environment is the White House.

Throughout the last year, there has been a steady stream of journalists and White House staffers and visitors who have tested positive for COVID-19. There has been an increased level of precautions taken since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20, including more substantial testing requirements, but the positive cases have continued.

After a physical, my initial dose of either a trial vaccine or a placebo (with a two-thirds chance of being the real thing) was actually delayed because of the lockdown of the nation’s capital that followed the Jan. 6 insurrection. I finally received the first dose on Jan. 22, two days after covering Biden’s inauguration at the Capitol. 

The following week, Novavax reported an 89.3 percent efficacy from a similar Phase 3 trial conducted in the United Kingdom.

The second dose was three weeks later, with each visit accompanied by blood work and a blood pressure check. All along, I was in the dark about whether I had received a real vaccine or not, continuing to report to the White House when CQ Roll Call’s turn in the press briefing room seating rotation came up.

Key White House staffers in both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as members of Congress and senior aides, qualified for vaccinations early on from a special supply for the “continuity of government.” The details of the vaccinations provided to the federal workforce have remained largely opaque.

Members of Congress in the national capital region, led by Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., have been asking for the federal government to take charge of vaccinating federal employees.

“In many cases, the federal government acknowledges when it puts an undue burden on a State or locality,” seven House Democrats from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia wrote in a Feb. 18 letter to the White House’s Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They cited the examples of payments in lieu of taxes and the impact aid programs that provide funds to places that face added expenditures because of a federal government presence.

“Like these two programs, the federal government should recognize the disproportionate impact it is placing on our community’s vaccine programs,” the members wrote.

A source familiar with the situation told CQ Roll Call the administration has been actively discussing the needs of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. However, a query to the White House Office of Management and Budget has not yielded further details.

The District, Maryland and Virginia have taken disparate approaches to the scheduling of vaccinations. While residents of the two neighboring states have had a mix of state, county and private sector registration systems, the District has largely sought to consolidate the retail appointments and many others for the limited vaccine inventory.

The booking website has failed repeatedly, and Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Thursday that Washington is expected to transition the week of March 8 to a pre-registration system rather than the sort of “Hunger Games” approach.

I asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about whether the federal government was offering to deploy federal personnel or contractors to provide information technology support to assist state and local governments with booking system failures. The White House has not followed up on that question.

As for me, I managed to get through the error-riddled District of Columbia booking system last week, securing a March 3 appointment for a vaccination site, conveniently enough, on the Howard University campus. The Howard site ran exceptionally smoothly, and I was in and out with a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine within 45 minutes, including a waiting period in a large lecture hall to make sure I was not experiencing unusual side effects.

I made what would be my final visit to the trial site on Feb. 26, because under the trial guidelines I was able to opt out when it became my turn for a vaccine already authorized for emergency use (I have an underlying medical condition). The day of the Pfizer vaccination, I found out that it was in fact my first jab against COVID-19, having received a placebo in the clinical trial.

Niels Lesniewski is CQ Roll Call’s chief correspondent for the White House and Congress.