Coronavirus

Abbott Doubles Down on His Ban On Government Vaccine Mandates

Gov. Greg Abbott still doesn't want any vaccine mandates in Texas, even for fully FDA approved shots.
Screenshot
Gov. Greg Abbott still doesn't want any vaccine mandates in Texas, even for fully FDA approved shots.
As the latest wave of the perpetual pandemic rages on, Texas and the greater Houston area in particular continue to be COVID-19 hotbeds. Both the city and state find themselves awash with coronavirus cases, and almost every day residents watch as new controversial government orders clash against clever public health policies designed to get vaccine shots into more arms ASAP. All the while, public health officials hope more dangerous variants than Delta don't develop in the meantime.

Abbott on Wednesday issued yet another executive order banning all vaccine mandates from any government entity. The governor was clearly frustrated that public health officials, local leaders and reporters read closely enough into his previous order on vaccine mandates to see that it only referred to vaccines under emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Many Texans hoped that specific language meant local government entities may have been allowed to issue vaccine mandates for Pfizer’s vaccine specifically given that the FDA moved it out of emergency use status and granted that vaccine full approval earlier this week. But in his latest order issued Wednesday, Abbott made clear that he wanted to halt all mandates for any COVID-19 vaccine from any government organization, “regardless of regulatory status.’

Abbott's new executive order:

Abbott also added the topic of vaccine mandates to the Texas Legislature’s special session agenda, asking the Legislature to weigh in “regarding whether any state or local governmental entities in Texas can mandate that an individual receive a COVID-19 vaccine and, if so, what exemptions should apply to such mandate.

"Vaccine requirements and exemptions have historically been determined by the legislature, and their involvement is particularly important to avoid a patchwork of vaccine mandates across Texas," Abbott said in a statement Wednesday.

While this appears to open the door for the Lege to pass whatever type of vaccination requirement law it wants, given both the House and Senate’s strong Republican majorities and the fact that Abbott has veto power over any bill they pass, it’s likely they’d simply codify Abbott’s order into state law if they’re able to make it to the topic of vaccines with less than two weeks left in the session.

Earlier Wednesday before Abbott’s new order, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner seemed to hint during a City Council meeting that he was considering issuing a vaccine mandate of his own for city employees. “I’ve got city employees, for example, who haven’t gotten vaccinated. I will tell you, in short order they will.” Turner said Wednesday.

Turner and the Houston Health Department got City Council’s blessing to ramp-up the city’s COVID-19 vaccine incentive program by approving $3.125 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for up to $150 in gift card incentives for Houstonians who get vaccinated by the city health department.

That’s $50 more dollars guaranteed to folks who get vaccinated than Harris County implemented last week, when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that anyone who got a first shot of any COVID-19 vaccine from a county health department location by the end of August would get a $100 debit card. So far, the county has reported an over 500 percent uptick in the number of vaccinations administered by Harris County Public Health since the incentive was introduced, comparing the average 431 vaccine doses given out a day in recent weeks to the 2,700 first shots given out this past Saturday.

Harris County’s program only gives freebies after folks get their first shot. The Houston Health Department’s new policy is a two-parter. It calls for $100 Mastercard gift cards for anyone who gets a first shot of Pfizer or Moderna’s two-shot vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Upon taking the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccine, folks will get $50 gift cards that are a mix of Mastercard gift cards as well as gift cards from Walmart, Target, Old Navy, Ross, Amazon, Shell, Walgreens or METRO Houston.

Previously, the Houston Health Department offered $25 gift cards to folks who got their second doses of either Pfizer or Moderna's vaccine. More details about which clinics are participating in the new $150 city vaccine incentive program can be found on the city website announcing the new program.

Both the city and county hope their vaccine incentives will slow the Delta variant that’s running roughshod throughout the Houston area. Many local hospitals are still at or near capacity due to the surge in COVID-19 patients over the past several weeks and Harris County’s 14-day average coronavirus test positivity rate is still creeping upward and currently sits at 21 percent, after having fallen to under 3 percent in early June.

The National Rifle Association is so concerned about the rapid spread of Delta in Houston that the gun group announced Tuesday it had cancelled its annual meeting which was scheduled to take place at George R. Brown Convention Center next weekend.

“Due to concern over the safety of our NRA family and community, we regret to inform you that we have decided to cancel the 2021 Annual Meeting and exhibits,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “The cancellation applies to all events and meetings that were scheduled in Houston.”

“The NRA’s top priority is ensuring the health and well-being of our members, staff, sponsors, and supporters,” the group’s statement continued. “We are mindful that NRA Annual Meeting patrons will return home to family, friends and co-workers from all over the country, so any impacts from the virus could have broader implications. Those are among the reasons why we decided to cancel our 2021 event.”
While vaccine incentives like Harris County and the city of Houston are offering are great for everyone 12 and up who’s eligible to get any of the available shots, they’re not much comfort for worried parents of kids 11 and under who have returned to in-person classrooms in droves as the new school year has kicked off in greater Houston.

After a rash of coronavirus cases broke out at Fort Bend ISD’s Pecan Grove Elementary School, on Monday the campus decided to shut down for at least a week and shift to virtual learning for the time being, less than two weeks after the district’s school year began on August 11.

Fort Bend ISD had previously clashed with Democratic Fort Bend County Judge KP George by refusing to comply with his recently-issued mask mandate for all county facilities and schools, instead insisting that masks would remain optional on district campuses. But by Monday night after the Pecan Grove closure, Fort Bend’s school board in a close vote reversed course and issued a formal mask mandate for all students and staff on Fort Bend ISD campuses.

“I am happy to know that one of our Fort Bend school districts is being proactive and taking the right measures to make sure that our students, teachers, and staff are safe,” George said in a statement Tuesday.

“I am happy to know that one of our Fort Bend school districts is being proactive and taking the right measures to make sure that our students, teachers, and staff are safe." - Fort Bend County Judge KP George

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Tuesday also saw Fort Bend ISD’s Oakland Elementary School shift to online learning barely over a week into the fall semester due to positive COVID-19 cases, and the district’s Drabek Elementary School also announced its Pre-K students would move to virtual learning starting Thursday, with hopes of returning to in-person instruction next week.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Fort Bend ISD had reported 746 of its students and 98 of its staff members had active cases of COVID-19. In neighboring Houston ISD, which just started classes Monday and did so under a board-backed mask mandate at the behest of Superintendent Millard House II, the district reported 368 active cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon (277 among students and 91 among staff).