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Gazelka: 'Essential' Capitol staff should get vaccine priority after healthcare workers, elderly

Minnesota could receive shipments of vaccine as soon as Dec. 11.

With COVID-19 vaccines to be distributed to Minnesota as soon as Dec. 11, healthcare workers and elderly people at high risk of severe disease from the novel coronavirus are likely to be among the first to receive the vaccine. 

Who gets the vaccine after the first group is unclear at this point, but Minnesota's Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, intimated Friday that some elected officials should be near the front of the line because lawmakers get more done when meeting in-person compared to virtual gatherings. 

“I’m encouraging the vaccines as one of the priority groups after elderly and some of our frontline workers that we think about the people who have to be essential at the Capitol,” Gazelka said during a virtual forum hosted by Fluence Media, with the audio recorded and published online by MPR News.

Gov. Tim Walz, earlier this week, said state officials are in the process of identifying the order of vaccination. Federal guidance says health care workers and the elderly, especially those living in congregate care settings, should be first in line, followed by frontline workers like police officers, firefighters and other law enforcement. 

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, spoke during the online forum Friday and said he'd love to be first in line but understands others take priority.  

"It needs to go to those high-risk folks, and the sooner we can get it to folks in nursing homes, that will slowly help us to open up," Daudt said, noting that vaccinating lawmakers who live with high-risk individuals would be beneficial on multiple fronts. 

Gazelka's comments drew criticism from some DFL lawmakers, who criticized Gazelka's past reluctance to wear face masks on the Capitol floor, as well as his role in a COVID-19 outbreak among GOP lawmakers following last month's election.

This saw several GOPers infected with COVID-19 following an in-person caucus and a celebratory dinner party on Nov. 5, including Gazelka himself, with DFL colleagues and Capitol staffers not immediately informed about the outbreak.

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Rep. Mike Howard, D-Richfield, tweeted that frontline workers, teachers and the most vulnerable populations should be first in line, adding that the general public should be in front of lawmakers. 

In a full statement, he added: "To the Republican leaders suggesting that legislators should have priority over other Minnesotans to receive life-saving vaccinations, I ask a simple question - have you no sense of decency? This brazen and selfish request is especially galling coming from legislators that have consistently minimized the seriousness of COVID-19, exacerbating a dangerous and highly contagious disease.

“Instead of cutting in line, we need to work together to prioritize our health care workers who have risked their lives for months fighting on the front lines, the elderly, those with chronic health conditions, our teachers and child care workers who are working around the clock to care for kids, and the food and service workers who are keeping our communities fed through this crisis. To do otherwise would not only be an egregious lapse in integrity, but a flagrant violation of the public’s trust."

More conciliatory was Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury) who said she "appreciates" what Gazelka is saying about getting essential members of the Legislature vaccinated, but thinks lawmakers should keep their distance for a while yet.

"We have an obligation to our own communities. If we come together and if people come to the Legislature and intermingle and go back to all over the state of Minnesota, that’s how spread happens, and we have an obligation not just to ourselves and our staff ... but to the people of Minnesota to make sure we're not irresponsibly being a vector for the spread of this disease."

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