Roughly 75% of House members have been vaccinated against COVID-19, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday, as she defended the health precautions taken during President Joe Biden's address to Congress.
Only 200 people were allowed in the House chamber Wednesday night, eight times fewer than the 1,600 who usually attend a presidential speech to Congress. All members were masked, socially distanced and either fully vaccinated or tested for COVID-19.
"All the requirements we had last night were not about security, by and large ... but in terms of COVID," Pelosi said.
Republicans criticized the protocols as excessive, given that most lawmakers are vaccinated. Some medical experts said Biden and Congress missed an opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy and importance of vaccines by not filling the chamber to capacity with fully vaccinated people.
"The science shows that could have been done. It would have sent an unequivocal message that vaccines are safe, effective and the key to ending the pandemic," Dr. Leana Wen, a George Washington University professor and a former Baltimore City health commissioner, wrote in The Washington Post. "The American people got a different message, one that could impede the nation's vaccine progress at a time when we can least afford it."
Pelosi's figure for the number of vaccinated lawmakers is identical to the number referenced by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in early March -- suggesting that few, if any, members have been vaccinated over the last month.
"We can't require vaccinations for the members of Congress, much less the American people," Pelosi said Thursday. "The (House) physician cannot tell us Democrats, Republicans or who -- and that's right, we should be respecting people's privacy."
But she said she has encouraged members of Congress to get vaccinated, as some have asked her to end the proxy voting, remote hearing and staggered voting system the House has used since the coronavirus pandemic began last year.
"Republicans come up to me and say, 'Let's shorten the time for votes.' I say, 'Tell your friends to get vaccinated. That will help,'" she said Thursday.
More than half of Americans -- 142 million -- have received at least one dose of vaccine and nearly 100 million are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In many communities, as vaccine supplies have grown, demand has fallen, worrying some experts who predict the United States could struggle to convince vaccine hesitant Americans to get inoculated.