ST. PAUL — Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on Friday, Dec. 4, said that state lawmakers and Capitol employees should get access to a coronavirus vaccination after health care workers and elderly Minnesotans.
The comment was met with swift opposition from Democrats who said they were content to wait their turn for a COVID-19 shot and criticized the lawmaker for suggesting legislators cut in line ahead of others.
Gazelka during a panel discussion said legislators would return to St. Paul for a "hybrid" legislative session including in-person and virtual proceedings. And the East Gull Lake Republican said they'd be able to resume more in-person proceedings if lawmakers were granted early access to a vaccine.
"I’m encouraging the vaccines, as one of the priority groups after elderly and some of our front-line workers, that we think about the people that have to be essential at the Capitol," Gazelka said during a Fluence Forum discussion.
Asked by reporters to respond to Gazelka's insinuation on an afternoon media call, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said for now, he is focused on getting health care and long-term care workers vaccinated first and foremost because it makes sense epidemiologically and morally. As far as his own and other lawmakers' falling on the vaccination priority list, he said he "hadn't given that any thought."
“I’ll tell you if it were by public opinion, I’m pretty certain the public is not going to put politicians as a priority list,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued guidance suggesting that health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities should get first-round access to vaccinations. And Minnesota health officials said they would follow that guidance. Additional details about the state's plans for vaccinations are set to be unveiled next week.
Gazelka said last month that he contracted COVID-19 after an in-person meeting with Republican senators and a post-election party with more than 100 guests. Gazelka was among four Senate Republicans to report COVID-19 cases after the events.
The Republicans came under fire from their Democratic peers after several attended an in-person special session after they'd learned about potential exposure to the illness. Additional lawmakers and staff could have contracted COVID-19 but health privacy laws don't require them to disclose their illness publicly unless they choose to do so.
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In response to Gazelka's request for early vaccine access, Democrats said other groups should be prioritized for immunizations and they said the Legislature could continue remote work.
"I appreciate what Sen. Gazelka is saying in terms of if we could get the essential folks vaccinated at the Legislature, but we have an obligation to our own communities," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, during the Fluence Forum event. "If we come together and if people come to the Legislature and intermingle and then go back all over the state of Minnesota, that’s how spread happens."
Others said public officials shouldn't get priority treatment when other groups continue to work on the front lines.
"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," state Rep. Michael Howard, D-Richfield, said in a news release. “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."
The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported 5,371 more Minnesotans had tested positive for the illness and 61 more had died from COVID-19 and its complications. In all, 3,845 people in Minnesota have perished from the disease.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said legislators who are at higher risk of contracting the virus or those who live with someone at high risk should get some priority in vaccine access. He said he didn't consider himself to be part of that category as he is not considered high-risk and lives alone.
"At some point, if we need to vaccinate anybody in the Legislature who is themselves high risk or has someone high risk living in their household — employees, whatever — if that helps us get back in person sooner, I would support that," Daudt said. "The Legislature is a relationship business and relationships cultivate much better in person."
Forum News Service correspondent Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.