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Texas governor accused of ‘playing politics’ in response to Covid outbreaks

Around 50% of eligible Texans are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and the number of residents hospitalized with the respiratory illness has risen to more than 6,800, levels not seen since February.

(CN) — As coronavirus hospitalizations surge in Texas, local officials are defying the governor’s orders barring mask mandates for public employees.

With just over 50% of eligible Texans fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the number of residents hospitalized with the respiratory illness has risen to more than 6,800, levels not seen since February, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Health officials are sounding the alarm that the highly contagious delta variant is to blame for what they have dubbed a fourth wave of Covid in the nation’s second-most populous state.

While the Democratic governors of New York and California are pushing for, or will soon be requiring, all state employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly Covid tests, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, is moving in the opposite direction.

On July 29, he issued an executive order barring government entities from forcing employees to get Covid vaccines and reiterated a previous order that no jurisdiction can force anyone to wear masks, with exceptions for government-run hospitals, county jails and state prisons.

He also barred public school districts from forcing students to don masks.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who criticized Abbott in March for removing all coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses and repealing a statewide mask mandate when less than 10% of Texans had been fully vaccinated, is defying Abbott’s latest orders.

Starting Wednesday, the Democratic mayor said all city employees without medical conditions that prevent compliance must wear masks on city property if they cannot maintain social distancing.

Abbott’s staff did not immediately respond Tuesday when asked if he will challenge Turner’s mandate in court.

But Turner’s spokeswoman told local media the city attorney believes Turner’s decree would hold up in court.

“Legal believes the city is within its right to ask city employees to wear face coverings to help stop the virus spreading within the workforce,” Mary Benton said.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has accused Abbott, who is up for reelection next year and has received the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, of playing pandemic politics to appease his conservative base at the expense of public health.

The attorney for the county that includes Houston, Menefee is urging state legislators to “take a hard look” at the Texas Disaster Act, the law through which Abbott is issuing executive orders for Covid-19 after declaring the pandemic a disaster in spring 2020.

“The Governor’s power is not absolute, and the Disaster Act doesn’t empower him to turn local government workplaces into COVID hotspots. Local officials are entitled to take action to keep their employees safe during the pandemic,” Menefee wrote Monday on Twitter.

With public schools across the state set to start classes in less than two weeks, many Texas parents are fearful their children will be infected with the virus due to Abbott barring school districts from requiring masks.

Dr. Charles Luke, co-director of Pastors for Texas Children, a Fort Worth-based ministry that runs church programs in support of schoolchildren, said he disagrees with Abbott’s one-size-fits-all order.

"Health decisions are best made by local health authorities closest to home who understand what is happening in their community. I don't think the blanket decision barring the requirement of masks is in the best interest of all communities in the state," Luke said in an email.

The delta variant has proven not only much more contagious than earlier iterations of Covid-19 but also more dangerous for children.

Dr. James Versalovic, interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital, said the delta variant is causing a higher fever and more congestion in children than earlier strains, which concerns him because the federal government has yet to approve vaccines for children under 12.


"We have had some children that have required ventilator support that is why we are working so diligently to make vaccines available to kids under 12 in the near future," Versalovic told Houston’s Fox News affiliate.

The rise in Covid cases has also led officials in and around the state capital Austin to revisit restrictions they put in place during earlier Covid outbreaks.

Courts in the area have moved ahead with preventative measures to slow the spread. Travis County announced this week that it will discontinue in-person jury trials.

In-person trials for criminal and civil cases had resumed in July but are on hold for the foreseeable future. Since Travis County halted trials in March of last year, the number of cases has piled up leading to an immense backlog.

In neighboring Williamson County, the Williamson County Justice Center announced Tuesday all people entering the building will be required to wear a face mask and social distance. The county acknowledged the governor’s order but cited an opinion from the Texas Attorney General that allows judges to enforce mask and distancing protocols in the courthouse. 

The Austin-Travis County area, much like Texas’ other urban areas, is seeing a rise in Covid-19 cases. On July 31, there were 546 new recorded cases in Travis County, out of the over 3,500 new cases recorded statewide.

The Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court held a special joint session on Tuesday to discuss efforts to combat the delta variant’s spread.

“The science has changed, [the delta variant] has impacted our hospital and medical systems, because it spreads much more rapidly,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin’s medical director/health authority, said in the meeting.

Walkes, echoing the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called on residents to wear masks and get vaccinated. “We have identified in our community 29 confirmed cases of the delta variant,” he said.

Despite neutering local governments' control over their Covid-19 response, Abbott in his order did encourage people in high-transmission areas to practice good hygiene, social distancing, and wear masks. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates,” Abbott wrote.

During a discussion about requiring masking in schools, Austin Mayor Steve Adler blasted the Governor’s order, saying, “denying our local school districts the ability to implement masking policies … is horrible and mind-boggling.”

The mayor called on Austin business owners to require masks. “I really want to appeal to the employers in our city to consider adopting, in your businesses, a mask policy so that you best protect your employees and customers,” he said.

One organization attempting to undermine the vaccination push is Austin nonprofit called the Informed Consent Action Network, whose opposition to Covid vaccines is based on the Nuremberg Code of 1947, a medical ethics doctrine handed down by a group of judges in a verdict following the trial of 20 German doctors accused of doing experiments on prisoners of Nazi concentration camps.

“Informed consent is the first rule of the Nuremberg Code. It mandates that all citizens should be informed about all of the positive benefits and all of the negative side effects of a personal medical decision,” the nonprofit’s founder Del Bigtree said in an email.

Bigtree claims it’s clear the current Covid vaccines are incapable of achieving herd immunity because of numerous “breakthrough” cases of people contracting the virus after they have been immunized.

“The only people who have been proven to be protected against all current variants of Sars Cov2 are those who have already contracted it.  So whether we are vaccinated or not, the question is not ‘if’ we get infected but 'when,’” he added.

Amid such rampant vaccine skepticism and powerless to enforce a mask mandate, officials are pleading with citizens to at least take action to protect themselves.

“Choose a mask, not a ventilator,” Austin Public Health spokesperson Matt Lara said.

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Categories / Government, Health, Politics

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