When it was his turn to get a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Matt Klein rolled up the sleeve on his scrubs and started filming. In a video posted to Facebook, the physician and DFL state senator assured viewers the vaccine was "safe and effective" moments before the shot went into his arm.
Republican Rep. Greg Davids was notified a dose was available for him and quietly — with no cameras — went in to get his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. And he'll quietly get the second one when it's time.
"If people want to get vaccinated, fine. If they don't, fine," said Davids, a 15-term state legislator from Preston. "I did my research and I decided that it's the right thing for me to do for my family."
Much like mask-wearing became a symbol of partisan divide early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there's a stark difference now between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in how they talk — or don't talk — about getting the vaccine themselves.
The Star Tribune surveyed all 201 state legislators, statewide officials and members of the delegation in Washington, D.C., asking whether they have been vaccinated or if they will when a dose becomes available. Few Republican lawmakers responded, some citing privacy concerns. More than 50 DFL lawmakers submitted a response, some enthusiastically talking about the need to be vaccinated.
"I almost feel overwhelmed writing this and thinking about getting a vaccine and what that literally means for my health and what mass vaccinations mean symbolically for our community," said Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis. "I can't wait."
The responses mirror national polling on attitudes toward the vaccine. While the number of people in the country who intend to get vaccinated has increased significantly, the issue has become more partisan over time, according to a Pew Research poll. The survey found 83% of Democrats say they plan to get the vaccine or already have, compared with just 56% of Republicans.
That could make Republican lawmakers more hesitant to talk publicly about the vaccine, even if they intend to get it themselves.
But there's some hesitancy in both parties, in part because lawmakers don't want to look like they're skipping ahead of more vulnerable Minnesotans for the vaccine. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka faced criticism in December after he suggested that legislators should get the vaccine after older adults and front-line workers so they can return to the Capitol.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz, 56, is not yet vaccinated and last week he went into a 10-day quarantine following exposure to a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.
Every member of Congress was offered the vaccine. All Democratic members of Minnesota's delegation in Washington said they've received at least one dose of the vaccine. Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach responded to the Star Tribune survey saying she was vaccinated, but GOP Reps. Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer did not respond. Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn did not respond to the Star Tribune but said in a WCCO radio interview this week that he was vaccinated in December.
Some Democrats have teamed up with public health officials to answer constituent questions about the vaccine and have posted photos on social media of themselves getting their dose, encouraging their constituents to do the same. In the midst of a major health crisis, they see publicizing the vaccine as part of their role as public officials.
"For me the whole point is getting the information out there," said Rep. Esther Agbaje, a Democrat who represents north Minneapolis. "We see a lot of stories that there's a lot of hesitancy in the Black community about getting the vaccine. I think that's only a half-truth. The real issue is that there hasn't been a lot of information about where to get it if you wanted it."
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a personal blow to many lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who lost her brother, and Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose mother died after contracting the virus. Both said they've had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Former Republican state Sen. Jerry Relph died in December after an outbreak in the GOP caucus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, estimates 75 to 85% of Americans need to get vaccinated to get the pandemic under control. He has said Republicans should be encouraging their supporters to get the vaccine instead of giving them the option.
"People look to us for that kind of leadership and that kind of guidance," said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, who lost two in-laws to the virus. "Yes, it is a personal choice, but right now our personal choices can have devastating consequences."
But Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he doesn't see a partisan divide on the vaccine in his conservative community. He's taken to his Twitter feed to remind groups like veterans that they are able to get the vaccine now.
"Some people are going to feel very comfortable coming out and saying, 'Hey, I'm getting vaccinated, hey, hey, look at me.' Other people are going to be more private," he said. "The primary driver I see right now is people's own personal health situation."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042