Taking science-based interventions like vaccinations off the table during an ongoing public emergency is like telling coastal residents they can’t board up their windows or fill sandbags as a hurricane approaches.
That was the dire message Dallas public health specialist and chair of the Texas Medical Association Council on Legislation John Carlo, MD, delivered on behalf of medicine to the Texas Legislature last week as lawmakers consider a pair of bills that aim to codify Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order banning vaccine mandates.
“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,” Abbott wrote.
His order comes as the Biden administration prepares to implement its federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Filed during Texas’ third special session set to end Tuesday night, House Bill 155 by Rep. Tom Oliverson, MD (R-Cypress), would let workers and customers opt out of any vaccine requirements by businesses and goes so far as to let workers sue their employers for being sidelined from work due to their vaccination status. Senate Bill 51 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) more broadly bans local governments, schools, universities, and private employers from enacting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and goes even further to allow exemptions from all required vaccinations based on conscience.
During hours-long hearings held last Wednesday and Thursday before the House and Senate State Affairs committees respectively, Dr. Carlo reiterated TMA’s unchanged stance that local autonomy – not universal mandates – is key to addressing pandemic surges when and where they erupt and therefore curbing mass spread of COVID-19.
“Our only consideration is patient health and safety,” he testified. “We do not seek mandates in support of our position. However, we do support local, community-oriented, evidence-based education and intervention that allow physicians and other frontline clinicians to treat Texans who are vulnerable, unable to be vaccinated, living in nursing homes, or disabled.”
Dr. Carlo also expressed medicine’s deep concerns that unilateral exemptions from or bans on COVID-19 vaccines not only undermine local autonomy, but also endanger medical professionals and put patients and colleagues who cannot fight infectious disease at severe risk just for things like going to work.
“A [nonmedical] exemption protects no one from this rapacious contagion,” Dr. Carlo said.
He also cautioned lawmakers that without flexibility to implement proven public health tools like vaccines, the current COVID-19 crisis stands to be compounded with flu season around the corner and a rise in “long COVID” cases as the number of Texans diagnosed with COVID-19 increases.
“We implore and urge you to please allow all employers and schools – public, private, and independent – to make sovereign decisions regarding vaccination policy for their own workforces, patrons, and students.”
As of this writing, HB 155 and SB 51 had yet to advance out of their respective chambers. Visit TMA's Grassroots Action Center to help stop these bills.