Some Texas lawmakers keep COVID-19 vaccine status quiet while crafting health policy

Texas Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Heading into the month of May, Texas reached a milestone: more than half the population over the age of 16 has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

This comes after months of Texans facing challenges trying to get vaccine appointments. Lawmakers across the state reported hearing from frustrated constituents about long wait times, technical glitches, general supply problems and other concerns about the vaccine distribution process.

“These calls have all but ceased,” noted a spokesperson for Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, in April.

A spokesperson for State Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, said, “We have not had a call related to COVID-19 vaccines in at least three weeks.”

With distribution becoming more widespread and supply picking up, health experts are turning their efforts toward battling hesitancy and misinformation. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found 28% of Texans reported no plans to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Almost all of the attention on the vaccination efforts has focused on the supply and issues with distribution efforts,” said research director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin Joshua Blank, in a press release in March. “But Texans don’t believe the vaccine distribution efforts are going poorly, and amidst consistent and stubborn vaccine skepticism, the real problem may soon be a lack of demand.”

Vaccine providers across the state have begun offering walk-up shots with no appointment, including Austin Public Health.

“Because there is so much available, there really is no barrier and no excuses,” said Cassandra DeLeon, APH’s assistant director.

Yet while public health officials continue to urge Texans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s unclear how many of the state’s elected officials have opted for the shot.

“It is up to them on how private or how public they want to be about their vaccines.”

Ray Sullivan, communications expert and political strategist

KXAN investigators surveyed the lawmakers sitting on key health-related committees in the Texas legislature, but many of them are not going public with their personal vaccine status.

Of the nearly 30 lawmakers contacted from the House Human Services and Public Health committees and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, only 15 reported having received the vaccine.

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KXAN investigators asked 29 state lawmakers who craft health policy whether they’ve been vaccinated. We also asked them to elaborate on what they’ve heard from their constituents about the vaccine process in their districts. Around half the lawmakers surveyed got back to us. Two lawmakers opted not to comment, while the rest never responded to our request.

(SOURCE: legislative offices of each lawmaker noted above)

Several of these lawmakers noted how simple and available the vaccine has been for legislators and their staff since the state opened eligibility for anyone over the age of 16. The Texas House Administration Committee partnered with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to offer shots at the Capitol building.

“So, the process was relatively easy at that point. However, the Representative acknowledges this is not the case in many communities across Texas, especially with the inconsistencies in the registration process and access to waitlists and appointments,” said a spokesperson for State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told KXAN he opted to get the shot “publicly and on-camera specifically to help address the issue of vaccine hesitancy.”

“A lot of them are leading by example,” said political strategist Ray Sullivan.

Several lawmakers posted pictures on social media after their vaccinations. Others chose to share vaccine appointment and clinic information for their followers and constituents.

It’s not a new concept, Sullivan explained. When he worked in former Gov. Rick Perry’s office, Sullivan said Perry often received his influenza vaccine in public at a media event, “to show the public that vaccines are important.”

The former governor’s wife, who worked as a nurse, would often administer his shot.

“You’re never quite sure how painful a shot is going to be when your wife gives it you,” Sullivan laughed. “It was a good way for the governor and the first lady to talk about the importance of vaccines.”

Sullivan has worked on three presidential campaigns, plus he served as the spokesperson for several legislators and two Texas governors. After years in the political sphere, he said things have changed both locally and nationally — especially regarding the handling of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen, in recent years, everything has become so political and more divisive,” he said. “So, it doesn’t surprise me that members on either side of the aisle want to keep those decisions private.”

After three emailed requests and several phone-calls to each legislative office over a month, a dozen lawmakers, and their staff, had not gotten back to KXAN investigators at the time of this report. Two lawmakers, State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and State Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, told KXAN they had “no comment.”

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, sit on the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel — the group deciding who’s eligible for the vaccine and how many doses providers get each week. KXAN did not receive a response from either lawmaker.

According to a report by the Washington Post, there’s similar uncertainty about the vaccination status of federal lawmakers, reportedly affecting the Office of Attending Physician’s decision to fully “reopen” legislative procedures in Washington D.C.

Their report explains that a letter from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, noted that 75% of the members in the U.S. House had received a vaccine. The Washington Post contacted 42 congressional offices, and just 24 said whether the member had been vaccinated. Nine Republicans said they had not received a shot.

“I wish more people would step up as credible leaders within communities and say, ‘We have got to do this for ourselves and others.'”

Dr. Nicholas Steinour, Austin-based Emergency Medical Physician

However, at the state level, Sullivan noted the “part-time” nature of the Texas Legislature as another reason he wasn’t shocked by the lack of response.

“These are folks that come here and work for 140 days every other year, and then go back and have normal jobs and normal lives. Like everybody, it is up to them on how private or how public they want to be about their vaccines,” Sullivan said.

The concerns over health information and vaccine privacy pre-date the spread of coronavirus, but the debate has resurfaced especially when it comes to the idea of “vaccine passports.”

 In April, Gov. Greg Abbott banned state agencies, political subdivisions and organizations receiving public funds from requiring someone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to receive services.

“As I’ve said all along, these vaccines are always voluntary and never forced,” Abbott said in a video announcing the executive order. “Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal health information just to go about their daily lives. That is why I have issued an executive order that prohibits government-mandated vaccine passports in Texas. We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health — and we will do so without treading on Texans’ personal freedoms.”

Still, some medical experts remain worried about the number of Texans who are undecided or unwilling to get the shot. Dr. Nicholas P. Steinour, Medical Director for the Emergency Department at US Acute Care Solutions, said he finds it “disheartening” when he hears people treat the vaccine as a political talking point, instead of a public health issue.

“I wish more people would step up as credible leaders within communities and say, ‘We have got to do this for ourselves and others,'” he said. “We know from past pandemics that we are much stronger together than fighting this individually.”

KXAN investigators took a look at vaccination rates in the counties represented by lawmakers on the the House Human Services and Public Health committees and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services.

According to state data from early May, most of these counties have reported somewhere from 30% to 40% of their population fully vaccinated. Collin County, represented by Rep. Candy Noble, has reported a higher vaccine rate, at 46%. Meanwhile, counties like Van Zandt and Fannin were reporting numbers closer to 26%. They are represented, in part, by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood). Other portions of Hall’s district, like Rockwall County, have reported higher vaccination rates.

Investigative photographer Ben Friberg and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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