I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.
School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.
Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.
Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.
“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.
“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”
Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.
Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.
It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.
Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.
“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.
Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.
The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.
Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.
Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.
“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.
The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.
So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.
UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:
Schools have an unspoken commitment to protect the children in their care. I can’t imagine the state of Texas suing school districts that require masks to keep kids safe. That would be cynical and tragic.
— Lina Hidalgo (@linaHidalgoTX) 12:41 PM – 8 August 2021