Texas’ top doctors discuss how to address COVID-19 ‘skeptics’ during state senate hearing


AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Monday, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services met for the first time ahead of the upcoming legislative session to discuss the state’s response to COVID-19, and the lessons that have been learned over the last nine months.

Senators on the state’s committee heard testimony from doctors across Texas about their experience with treating the novel coronavirus during the course of the pandemic.

“I’ve not done anything other than take care of severe and critical COVID since early March,” Parkland Hospital ICU Medical Director Dr. Matthew Leveno stated. “I was here for the first patient, that’s all I do.”

While therapeutics and other treatments have become more widely available, he said they’re still not enough.

“It is likely that Remdesivir and steroids are decreasing the number of patients, developing more severe disease. That said, there continues to be a significant subset of patients that will still deteriorate, to the point of needing mechanical ventilation,” Leveno said.

After treating patients for nine months, the virus still surprises him.

“I remain humbled and very frustrated by our inability to reliably identify the subset of patients that will eventually require mechanical ventilation,” Leveno said during Monday’s hearing.

Despite these stories from the frontlines, there are still people who don’t accept the severity of the pandemic, some even calling it a hoax.

“By far the skeptics are the difficult, the most difficult,” Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, said. “I think we just have to be very plain in saying, ‘You’re wrong.'”

The skeptics have become an issue for the state, as they depend on the public to wear masks and continue prevention protocols until a vaccine is widely available.

“Your right to exercise your liberty, just like every other liberty, ends where it impacts me adversely, and for example that’s the reason we all drive on the same side of the highway. I mean, you’re not free to drive the wrong way on a road. It’s that simple,” Hellerstedt said Monday, addressing those who still don’t believe in wearing masks.

Going forward, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute said more education can overcome this skepticism.

“If we band together to educate our community better about scientific success and best practices, we’ll see an end to this in future pandemics,” Dr. Larry Schleisinger, the institute’s CEO, said.

For now, the state’s top doctor is calling on all elected officials and health authorities to relay the same message.

“I think one of the best things that we can do is simple declarative sentences and say, ‘It’s real. No one is making these numbers up. No one’s inflating the number of hospitalizations or death.’ It’s not in anyone’s interest whatsoever to do that, and that the people who are saying something to the contrary, are not telling you the truth,” Hellerstedt said during Monday’s hearing.

The committee also discussed COVID-19 vaccine distribution, with the first batch—1.4 million doses—expected to arrive in about a week and a half. They also went over treatment options and analyzed data on COVID-19 tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

For many legislators, the upcoming committee meetings will mark the first time they will go on the record with their opinions.

“There are senators from urban, rural and suburban areas, so I think you will get a sense of the different levels of concern, but that’s going to come through the prism of the politics of the situation,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said.

To date, Gov. Greg Abbott has taken the lead on managing the pandemic. Now, legislators will be able to take over and steer the future of the state’s response.

Henson said any changes could come with some partisan restrictions. He said data shows there’s a consensus among Democrats that the state should address this crisis with aggressive action, while there are stronger cross-currents among Republicans.

“It’ll be interesting to see just how much comes out, and given the unambiguous severity of the moment we are in, whether Republicans are willing to send a clear message to their constituencies that this is a significant crisis and their behavior should reflect that,” Henson said.

Tuesday, the Senate committee is expected to discuss the impact and response to COVID-19 on behavioral health, child abuse, family violence, long-term care residents and delayed medical care.

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