GOP pretends not to know how COVID spreads to earn political points

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Health officials say vaccinating everyone — including inmates — is the only way to achieve herd immunity.

Republicans are criticizing President Joe Biden for a Department of Defense plan to vaccinate inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp against the coronavirus with claims that Biden "was trying to prioritize Gitmo terrorists over Americans" by authorizing the vaccination program.

The GOP lawmakers seem determined to ignore the recommendations of health experts, who warn that prison inmates are statistically vulnerable to infectious diseases and that prison employees who are exposed to the coronavirus are a significant contributor to its spread in the local community.

During an appearance on Fox News Tuesday, House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise said, "What has President Biden done? First, we exposed that he was trying to prioritize Gitmo terrorists over Americans in getting the vaccine. They pulled back on that after we exposed it, but then, now, he's saying that people who came here illegally can jump ahead of other Americans who have been waiting to get the vaccine on that prioritization. So what is this priority? It thought we were supposed to be looking out for hard-working families."

Scalise tweeted, "This shouldn't be a debate: American seniors, essential workers, and vulnerable populations should get it first — not last."

In a memo released Jan. 27, a Department of Defense official announced that Guantanamo Bay detainees had been authorized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The reaction of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was typical: "President Biden told us he would have a plan to defeat the virus on day 1. He just never told us that it would be to give the vaccine to terrorists before most Americans," McCarthy tweeted.

Other House Republicans also criticized the plan to vaccinate the inmates — including Wisconsin's Bryan Steil, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, Ashley Hinson of Iowa, Brian Babin of Texas, and Kat Cammack of Florida — repeating the words "terrorists" and noting that "seniors" and "law-abiding, taxpaying Americans" were lined up behind "the mastermind of 9/11 attacks" to obtain vaccines.

Stefanik and Hinson on Monday introduced a resolution in the House to block the vaccination plan.

The Pentagon subsequently put it on hold.

Guantanamo Bay now houses only 40 detainees, but 1,500 National Guard members — essential workers such as Scalise claims deserve protection — are stationed there. There are 6,000 people living on the adjoining naval base. NBC reports that all detainees are legally required to obtain any necessary medical treatment on the base, where one hospital serves the entire population.

Prison reform advocates and health experts alike have warned of the challenge of containing virus spread in prisons, due to close quarters among inmates and limited access to medical care. Studies have repeatedly highlighted that inmates are among those most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

According to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice nonpartisan think tank, inmates are four times more likely to contract the coronavirus than are members of the general population.

Other studies have noted that prison workers who interact with inmates are a major contributor to community spread of coronavirus.

Dr. Seena Fazel, a University of Oxford psychiatrist, said, "Our research suggests that people in prison should be among the first groups to receive any COVID-19 vaccine to protect against infection and to prevent further spread of the disease."

According to the New York Times, Guantanamo Bay received a first shipment of the Moderna vaccine in early January, with a second shipment on the way, and has begun to vaccinate staff members.

Scalise and other Republicans also criticized a Monday announcement by the Department of Homeland Security of plans to vaccinate undocumented immigrants. Health officials say that vaccinating as many people as possible, no matter their immigration status, is the only way to achieve herd immunity for the general population.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.