Minnesota lawmaker: Make Legislature a priority for COVID vaccine

The top Republican in Minnesota government suggested Friday that state lawmakers and Capitol staff should be among the priority groups for a coronavirus vaccine.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said vaccinating essential Capitol employees should happen after older Minnesotans and front-line workers get their doses, but doing so would allow for a quicker return to in-person legislative work in 2021.

"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, R-East Gull Lake, said during a virtual forum with four legislative leaders hosted by Fluence Media.

Gov. Tim Walz, whose administration has some authority over vaccine prioritization, told reporters he had not thought about where politicians would fall.

"I myself even don't fall into any of those (priority) categories...and that's the way it should be," Walz said, when asked about Gazelka's comments. "I'll tell you, if it were by public opinion, I'm pretty sure the public's not going to put politicians as a priority list."

It's unclear where the Legislature and its staffers will fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that health care workers and long-term care residents will be in the top priority group, and Minnesota health officials have said they plan to follow the federal guidelines.

Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent, who was part of the legislative forum, responded to Gazelka's comments.

"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," said Kent, DFL-Woodbury. "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."

House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt then said he would like to see high-risk lawmakers and Capitol staff be vaccinated, but after other high-risk groups, like long-term care residents.

"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," said Daudt, R-Crown. "The Legislature is a relationship business and relationships cultivate much better in person."

Daudt said he did not consider himself a high priority because he lives alone and is not high-risk for getting sick from the coronavirus. He said he would "absolutely" take the vaccine when it becomes available because he has "complete confidence" in it.

It's unclear how many Minnesota lawmakers have already had the virus. Several have disclosed positive tests, but some have done so only months after their illness. Senate Republicans faced a COVID outbreak in November after two in-person caucus meetings, including a dinner party.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the fourth legislative leader on Friday's forum, did not speak during the discussion about where lawmakers should fall during the vaccination timeline.