State of Texas: Order banning vaccine mandates brings confusion and questions

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all vaccine mandates is creating confusion for some businesses and medical facilities across the state.

“No entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19,” the executive order, GA-40, reads.

This comes after the Biden administration last month announced sweeping vaccine mandates requiring all employers with 100+ workers to either mandate vaccines or test workers weekly.

In the order, Abbott says Biden’s mandates are “another instance of federal overreach” and the administration is “bullying” private entities into enacting vaccine mandates.

The governor’s order, announced Monday, directly contradicts President Joe Biden’s planned orders to require all nursing home employees to be vaccinated for a facility to receive federal funding.

“There’s a lot of confusion and a lot of concern among our members,” said George Linial, president and CEO of Leading Age Texas, which advocates for not-for-profit retirement housing and nursing home communities.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty in the air,” he told KXAN, adding he feels vaccine requirements should be left up to individual facilities as they assess the risks to their elderly residents.

Late last month, Leading Age Texas and the Texas Health Care Association (THCA) released the results of a survey that included responses from 120 organizations representing 210 nursing homes and 33 assisted living facilities.

The survey found long-term care communities saw a 12% decline in employment since the start of the pandemic, and 30% are limiting new admissions due to staffing shortages.

“I think the nation is still confused to some degree. Certainly, I think we’re going to see a lot of litigation,” said Lori Porter, cofounder and CEO of National Association of Health Care Assistants.

It remains unclear by when nursing home staff would need to be vaccinated under the Biden administration’s order. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is set to take public comment this month.

Abbott’s order comes as COVID-19 cases continue to wane across Texas, leading more people to return to pre-pandemic behavior, like attending music festivals or packed sporting events. Many are wondering if the worst of the virus is truly behind us.

Most epidemiologists will say it’s hard to predict.

Dr. Jennifer Shuford, Texas’ chief epidemiologist, said at least for now, the current trends are promising for the Lone Star State.

“One thing that was expected is that we would have steep increases in cases and hospitalizations just because this last variant was so contagious — the Delta variant,” she said. “So we expected it to burn through the population quickly, which is just what happened. But we’re happy that we are seeing declines now in cases, in hospitalizations kind of earlier than we did during the last wave that we had.”

About 59% of Americans are fully vaccinated, with many states still under 50%, making the concept of herd immunity less within close reach. For comparison, President Joe Biden’s original vaccination goal was to get shots in the arms of at least 75% of Americans by July 4. Herd immunity is estimated to be anywhere from 75% to 85% of a community.

Dr. John Carlo is a Dallas-area physician who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association COVID-19 Task Force. He said the problem with the herd immunity benchmark is it has to be a global goal, since this is a pandemic, not an epidemic.

“Unfortunately, we’re not where we need to be in many places throughout the world, which gives us an ever-present risk of having not only new transmissions coming back into our communities, but new variants and new mutations, because the virus is freely circulating in other areas,” Carlo said.

Worldwide, only 35.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Spain, for example, has one of the highest rates with nearly 78% of its citizens vaccinated. Compare that with Bangladesh, where just about 11% of its citizens are fully vaccinated.

It’s leading many to ask: “will this pandemic become an endemic?” An endemic is a disease that does not go away, one that is regularly found in particular areas or populations.

Again, most epidemiologists will tell you: it’s hard to predict.

Carlo does not like using the term “endemic” to describe the possibility of where this virus could go, because it implies our society could be okay living with this forever. He said the biggest difference between COVID-19 and the seasonal influenza virus is its mortality rate.

“The percentage of people who have really severe illness from a coronavirus infection is much, much higher than even the most severe flu season,” he said. “So we would not want to rely on sort of the current seasonal flu pattern to sort of say that’s something we can deal with, with this virus.”

The second biggest difference is that influenza strains have been around for centuries and SARS-CoV-2 is still novel. Shuford, however, doesn’t rule out the possibility of COVID-19 becoming a seasonal disease.

“What we’ve seen with previous flu pandemics is that the pandemic will come, and it’ll affect most of the globe. And then the population will get some sort of immunity to it. And it continues to circulate as a seasonal flu virus, but it doesn’t have that same case fatality rate, or it doesn’t kill as many people during subsequent seasonal circulation of that virus,” she said.

Shuford and Carlo disagree slightly on what the future of this virus looks like but agree on the tools at our disposal now, and it’s nothing new: vaccinations.

“As long as there are pockets of people who haven’t been infected or haven’t been vaccinated, we can still see small outbreaks or big outbreaks across our state,” Shuford said. “Resulting in hospitalizations and deaths, all those really bad things that we’re hoping to avoid.”

They are hoping vaccine approval for children could be a game changer, given that schools are one of the most densely-populated social settings in society.

“If we can start making sure that our kids can be in the school safely, that really is the stabilizing effect,” Carlo said.

Neither of them recommend antibody treatments in place of the vaccine but say antiviral treatments will also be key tools in defeating this pandemic.

Texas House passes bill to regulate participation of transgender athletes in school sports

A bill that would require Texas public school student athletes to play sports based on their birth gender passed on the House floor Thursday night. The amended legislation headed to the Senate.

Similar legislation has already died three times this year, but the debate for the full House was a hurdle it had failed to clear before.

Supporters of House Bill 25 have been pushing House leadership to get the bill to the finish line for months now. This session, the Senate companion already passed swiftly through the other chamber, as it had in sessions past.

“We’ve heard from UIL also that they’re getting more and more calls with concerns about changes in birth certificates and males competing in female sports,” Mary Elizabeth Castle with Texas Values said.

But Democrats pushed back, and pointed to zero complaints about specific athletes filed with the UIL of transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Additionally, the UIL previously testified it does not have a way of tracking how many transgender athletes are currently participating in sports across Texas.

Democrats call the bill a solution in search of a problem and explain it’s leading to harm already.

“Because the Texas Legislature has been pursuing these bills, 150% increase in suicide has occurred in the LGBTQ community, predominantly of transgendered kids, because their government does not care about them,” State Rep. Julie Johnson (D-Farmers Branch) said during the debate Thursday.

“We are here to protect children; we do know that this bill does create harm to some children. So when we say ‘we don’t want to create harm,’ do we mean all kids or just some kids?” State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) said Thursday.

The bill’s Republican author said she cares about the mental health of all Texas children, though.

“It affects all 332,000 girls, currently playing UIL sports in Texas,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) said, defending the bill.

Pandemic restrictions lead to propositions on Texas ballot

Texas voters will consider eight proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in the November 2 statewide election, including one relating to nursing home and assisted living facility residents’ right to visitors.

It’s a measure Mary Nichols has been fighting for after spending months apart from her mother last year when her mom’s nursing home closed its doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When the state temporarily suspended visitation at long-term care facilities housing these vulnerable residents, Nichols worried about what kind of care her mom was receiving without her there to check.

“She can’t even turn her own head at this point, so she doesn’t have any human contact at this point if I’m not there singing to her, talking to her,” she said. “That six months that people went last year with no contact had devastating effects.”

Nichols started advocating for the right for each resident to have an “essential family caregiver” come for in-person visits. This spring, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 25 into law, ensuring residents retain that right, regardless of other COVID-19 restrictions.

Texas Caregivers for Compromise are advocating in favor of Proposition 6 on the November ballot. (Photo provided by: Mary Nichols)
Texas Caregivers for Compromise are advocating in favor of Proposition 6 on the November ballot. (Photo provided by: Mary Nichols)Read More »

“I felt like we were saving the body, but killing the spirit. We can never do that again,” State Sen. Donna Campbell said during the Health and Human Services Committee hearing on the bill.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the committee and one of the authors of the bill, also wrote a Senate Joint Resolution regarding essential family caregivers. That resolution is now on the November ballot for voters as Proposition 6.

MORE: Texas families fight for access to long-term care facilities with ‘Essential Family Caregiver’ plan

“Laws can be paused. They can push a hold button on those laws. If it’s a constitutional right, they cannot do that,” Nichols said.

Proposition 6 would ensure long-term care facility residents have the right to designate an essential caregiver allowed to come for in-person visitation, even during a health emergency. The proposed amendment would apply to residents at a Texas nursing facility, assisted living facility, intermediate care facility for individuals with an intellectual disability, residence providing home and community-based services, or state-supported living center. It would also authorize the legislature to provide guidelines for these facilities to follow in establishing essential caregiver visitation policies and procedures.

Nichols said they haven’t faced much opposition while out advocating for the amendment.

Kevin Warren, President and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which advocates on behalf of nursing facilities, said they support Proposition 6.

WATCH: Emotional reunions for seniors, families in Texas nursing homes

“THCA supports the measure as it recognizes the importance of in-person relationships while maintaining a facility’s ability to take the necessary steps to protect during a potential community health risk. We appreciate the support for the long-term care profession and the heroes that take care of our most vulnerable Texans every day,” he said.

Nichols told KXAN one of their biggest hurdles was ensuring people know this measure is up for a vote on Nov. 2.

“All of us will either be a caregiver, know someone who is a caregiver or be in need of a caregiver, so this is something that is going to affect every single one of us,” she said.

During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, many churches across Texas converted their services to outdoor, online or socially-distanced services.

But, some local officials ordered them to completely shut their doors. That’s why Republican lawmakers filed a bill during regular session that would ban this from happening ever again.

It already passed in the legislature, but now needs approval from voters as a constitutional amendment, Prop 3, in this November’s election.

Religious leaders faced a tough decision on how to serve their congregation during the onset of the pandemic, but some didn’t have a choice.

“We saw multiple local ordinances and other governmental entities shutting down churches,” one of the bill’s co-authors, State Rep. Matt Krause, (R – Fort Worth) explained.

Another one of the bill’s co-authors, State Rep. James White, (R – Hillister), said this needed to be amended immediately.

“The Constitution of Texas in the United States was very clear. The government should not shut down churches,” Rep. White said.

That’s why the legislature passed the bill that became Prop 3, barring any governmental entity from shutting down churches, even in disasters or emergencies.

The bill passed with bipartisan support, but some tried to fight the new law, saying the churches were ordered to close to protect public health, and did not impede on religious freedoms.

“If a fire marshal orders a number of people to leave a church building because it is currently overflowed, that is not an infringement of anyone’s right to exercise their religion. Likewise with public health concerns,” Brian Register testified against the bill in the spring.

But, the bill’s authors say a complete shutdown is too far.

“The constitution and case laws allow for reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on certain First Amendment rights. So I understand that argument. But this was much different. This was completely shutting down and foreclosing the opportunity to worship. And that’s where government greatly overreached,” Rep. Krause said.

Early voting begins statewide on Monday, October 18. The early voting period ends on Friday, October 29. Election day is Tuesday, November 2.

Some Texas colleges recovering from pandemic enrollment losses

When University of Texas senior Henry Hancock realized he would be taking classes online indefinitely due to the pandemic, he said it was a surreal feeling.

“Having only spent one semester online, I got the sense it would have really been tough for me,” he said.

ORIGINAL INVESTIGATION: Colleges in Crisis 

Hancock instead opted to take a semester off school to get a job and work in Wyoming, during the spring of 2021.

“I was lucky enough to be ahead on credits at that point,” he explained. “So blessed to be able to go and have that time, when I know a lot of students were here still online,” he said.

Hancock wasn’t alone, as students all over the nation considered gap years or even delayed enrollment altogether. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reported a more than 6% decline in students enrolling in higher education straight out of high school.

“That’s not the kind of thing that just resets as more people get vaccinated, and we get through these variants, because we know the longer students stay out of higher education, the lower the chances are they are going to re-enroll,” said Harrison Keller, the Texas Higher Education commissioner.

Despite a national trend of declining higher education enrollment, a KXAN analysis of Central Texas institutions reveal many schools are reporting increases for the Fall 2021 semester. This comes after a slight dip in enrollment at some of these same schools during the pandemic.

MORE: Local colleges seeing slight dip in overall enrollment during pandemic, jump in graduate students

Total enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin rose 3% over last fall, from 50,476 to 51,992. Officials said that was close to the all-time high of 52,261 students, set back in 2002.

Texas State University reported total enrollment of 38,077 students across both the San Marcos and Round Rock campuses, which is up from 37,849 students in Fall 2020.

Both universities reported enrolling record-breaking first year classes.

This fall, St. Edward’s University reported gaining 126 new students from last year.

“This growth was seen in all categories including freshmen, with a large growth in transfers and re-entering students,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Huston-Tillotson University reported a 5% decline in enrollment this semester, down to 1,003 from 1,058.

Commissioner Keller said they were seeing generally positive trends for enrollment at schools in Central Texas and the Houston area, but the board worried about other regions of the state.

“There are places in Texas that area experiencing a much faster recovery,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go to be able to get students across the state to enroll.”

A graph showing the increase in enrollment numbers at Central Texas institutions of higher education.
A graph showing the increase or decrease in enrollment numbers at Central Texas institutions of higher education.

On average, Keller said enrollment was up at large state universities. However, they were most concerned about declining enrollment at community colleges, regional and broad access institutions. He noted these are “the kinds of institutions that most Texans attend.”

Enrollment is ongoing at Austin Community College, meaning its official data has not been finalized yet. KXAN expects an update next week.

Keller commended UT Austin and ACC for what he called an innovative approach to digital learning.

“With breaking down three credit courses to three one-credit courses; with having half the course meet online and then, when folks get together, they are doing more hands on kind of work together,” he described.

He also noted they are seeing students enrolling now with much different needs than the traditional first-year coming straight from high school, such as targeted mental health resources, as well as more child care and transportation options.

KXAN began investigating Colleges in Crisis last fall, partnering with NBC News and The Hechinger Report as they studied the financial strength of institutions across the country. More than 500 showed warning signs of financial stress in at least two of the areas analyzed, including a pattern of declining enrollment, even before the pandemic began.

Commissioner Keller said the board is also watching the impact enrollment decisions have on the financial well-being of the potential students themselves, in addition to the institutions at-large.

“There is no better insurance policy against unemployment than a post-secondary, high-quality credential. That is more and more important,” he said.

MORE: After slight dip in fall enrollment, Central Texas universities gear up for spring semester

He noted they have seen unemployment rates as much as double for people who haven’t completed their bachelor’s degree and even triple for people with only a high school degree.

“The pandemic accelerated changes that were already underway — much faster — in our economy than anyone anticipated. That shifted in the way of higher skills and higher credentials,” Keller explained. “We have hundreds of thousands of Texans who are going to need to re-skill and up-skill, so that they can get a better job, so that they can advance in their careers and even so they can get back into the workforce.”

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