AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, KXAN asked doctors and local leaders questions about COVID-19, the delta variant, vaccinations and policy in KXAN’s Keep Austin Well town hall. The messages they shared of getting vaccinated and masking are a matter of life and death for some families in Central Texas.
“I’ve got a sister-in-law in an ICU on a ventilator in southern Missouri right now, fully vaccinated, 41-years-old with MS. And her poor young son, who is also too young to be vaccinated, brought it home to her,” said Matthew Cook, who sent in his questions and watched the town hall. “She’s probably not going to make it. She’s going to be one of the people that are immunocompromised for whom the vaccine will not work.”
Cook is a language teacher at the University of Texas and has two small children. He’s worried for their and his own safety heading back to in-person classrooms where masks can’t be mandated, due to state orders.
“I have a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. We can’t send them back into a public school, because they’re not vaccinated, and I have two autoimmune disorders. I’m on four immunosuppressant medications. We can’t risk that,” Cook said. “Our family will be one of the statistics of this continuing, evolving, mutating pandemic.”
The panel of doctors in the Keep Austin Well town hall says those are the two types of people most at risk for serious illness — rare cases of people with severe conditions that affect their immunity even when vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated.
Emergency room Dr. Natasha Kathuria says every person she’s personally had to admit for COVID-19 wasn’t vaccinated. She also says the most severe cases in which people are on ventilators aren’t primarily among the elderly anymore.
“The youngest patient is 19, and the oldest is 39,” Kathuria said of her hospital’s ECMO patients. “That’s not the demographic we had during either of the last surges we dealt with.”
Dr. Pamela Cowper added she knows of 14 children hospitalized right now with COVID-19 pneumonia.
“It is affecting the younger populations so much more severely,” Cowper said.
Stressing that, Internist Dr. Anna Vu-Wallace added, “With delta, all bets are off. We don’t know what this will do in our pediatric population. We’re seeing it in real life, right now, and so we’re seeing higher and higher hospitalization for children. We’re seeing higher infection rates for children than we did previously.”
In KXAN’s town hall, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown were played a video clip of Gov. Greg Abbott doubling down on his choice not to mandate masks or shutdowns while speaking at a national convention in Dallas earlier in the day.
“The surest way to end the pandemic is for everyone who wants one to make sure they get the vaccine,” Abbott claimed in the clip. “That said, going forward in Texas, there will not be any government-imposed shutdowns or mask mandates. Everyone already knows what to do. Everyone can voluntarily implement the mandates for them, for their families and for their businesses.”
In response, Judge Brown replied, “I agree everyone should get vaccinated, but there’s a hole in that plan, and that hole is that kids under 12 who are about to go back to school, and the school district’s ability to require them to mask is not there.”
Cook wants masking to be mandated for classrooms like his own at UT. He also wants mask mandates and widespread virtual learning options in K-12 schools for children like his own son and daughter.
“Freedom doesn’t mean you get a beer whenever you want. That’s not what it means. Freedom is a price. We pay for it by sacrificing a bit of our freedom to give it to others,” Cook said. “We can do better. Americans can do better. We have to look out for one another, and we can do it. We just need to be allowed to do the right thing.”