Governors Not Rolling Up Sleeves for Smallpox Shots

By: - February 5, 2003 12:00 am

President Bush received the smallpox vaccine in part to boost confidence for the nearly one million troops and health care workers he wants inoculated. But the nation’s governors don’t seem quite as eager to roll up their sleeves for the needle.

At least not yet.

Despite safety and liability concerns expressed by some hospitals and health care leaders, state-level smallpox vaccinations of public health and emergency workers got underway Jan. 24, as part of the Bush Administration’s plan to protect frontline healthcare workers in the event of a bio-terror attack. contacted the Governors’ offices in all 50 states and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Of the 29 that responded, none had immediate plans to stick their arm out and be inoculated against the disease.

“We are immunizing our first responders, and the governor doesn’t fall into that,” said Russ Lopez, spokesman for California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

As the nation’s commander in chief, President Bush is in a different position than state leaders, said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D). “From what I understand, since (President Bush) asked the military and health care workers to get vaccinated, he was going to do it himself,” Bond said.

Mandatory vaccination of some 500,000 designated military personnel began in December, but inoculation for health care workers is voluntary. The Bush Administration hopes to immunize about 450,000 healthcare workers across the country.

The federal government did not make any recommendations to governors about receiving the vaccine, said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

But Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) isn’t being vaccinated at this stage on the advice of HHS Secretary Tommy Tompson, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, a Doyle aide said.

“Secretary Thompson suggested that the governor of Wisconsin does not need to get the shot. The governor is just following the advice of the secretary,” Josh Morby, a Doyle spokesman told

Public health officials in most states said vaccinating the governor isn’t necessary “at this point.” Many don’t see smallpox as an imminent threat in their state.

For example, state security and public health advisers told Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that the threat of smallpox in Iowa is minimal.

“Unless (the governor) is ordered to by the federal government, he will not be vaccinated,” said Matt Paul, a Vilsack spokesman.

Officials in other states echoed this sentiment and said for now they’re sticking to federal plans, which don’t call on governors to receive the shot.

“Just like every other state we’re following the CDC,” said Roseanne Pawelec, speaking for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Gov. Mitt Romney (R).

Vaccination plans vary from state to state, but they follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In initial phases, states are immunizing the “first tier” of emergency and public health employees; those that would be immediately exposed in the event of an outbreak or that would administer the vaccine to others. “(The governor) is not a hospital employee. He’s not in public health, so at this point, he’s not being vaccinated,” said Tim Church of Washington’s Gov. Gary Locke (D).

Vaccinating Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm isn’t Michigan’s top priority either, said spokeswoman Geralyn Lasher.

“She’s not a health care provider. Our priority is vaccinating health care providers not the general population,” Tasher said.

Press officials for three Democrats, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, declined to comment on whether the officials would consider receiving smallpox shots at any time.

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) and Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) haven’t given much thought to the matter because of more immediate health care priorities, their press secretaries said. While Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) is still weighing some of the medical and personal risks, his spokeswoman said.

“It hasn’t even come across our radar screen,” said Steven Johnston, Foster’s spokesman. Governors from at least 19 other states aren’t ruling out the possibility of receiving the shot in the future, their press officials said. These include: Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

Spokesmen for Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) did not know if the governor planned to receive the shot.

California’s Lopez, said Gov. Davis would be at the top of the list if the vaccine became available and necessary for the general public.

“When his turn comes up yes, but at this point the governor is not considered a first responder,” Lopez said.

Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) don’t consider themselves first responders either, but want health care workers to know they’re not afraid, officials said. Both plan to “wait their turn” for shots.

“(The governor) will not jump in front of others who are supposed to be receiving the vaccine,” said Taft spokesman Jay Carey.

Only South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford (R) already received the vaccine, but in a childhood immunization administered long before the disease was considered a threat or potential agent of terrorism. His spokesman said the inoculation was not related to the recent push for smallpox vaccinations.

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