Texas lawmakers offered vaccine despite ineligibility

Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Austin's top health authority is offering coronavirus vaccines to Texas lawmakers and their key staffers, regardless of whether they are currently eligible under state guidelines.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin Public Health, confirmed to The Dallas Morning News on Thursday that he organized the vaccination effort with Ascension Seton, a local hospital health system. He said he knows at least five to 10 legislators of both parties who were vaccinated through this process in the past few weeks.

"If they’re going to lawmakers, they’re not going to somebody else. But, again, the overall strategy is to get the vaccine in the arms of people as quickly as we can," Escott said. "We have to recognize that there are competing interests, and that continuity of government is vital."

An Ascension Seton spokesperson said the hospital is cooperating with Escott's request, adding that most of those vaccinated so far have been eligible under state guidelines that prioritize healthcare workers, the elderly and those with certain medical vulnerabilities.

Escott said he's concerned that the flood of lawmakers coming to Austin for the legislative session could make it a superspreader event.

The 2021 legislative session kicked off Tuesday and adjourned Thursday until the end of the month. On Friday, Rep. Joe Deshotel, a Democrat from Beaumont, confirmed that he tested positive for COVID-19.

Escott said he pushed, unsuccessfully, for the state to put lawmakers on a priority list for the vaccine. He said he doesn't believe he is breaking any rules, saying the state’s vaccine guidelines are just recommendations.

The Department of State Health Services has set up a multi-tiered system for vaccine distribution. Front-line health care workers and nursing home residents are first in line. Those age 65 and older or adults with chronic health issues that put them at heightened risk are also priorities.

The state says it will likely be spring before people in all of those in the priority categories are inoculated.

On Sunday, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported that 13,728 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized across the state Sunday.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say there have been more than 32,400 COVID-19 related deaths in Texas, the third highest death count in the country.

Johns Hopkins says that over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Texas has increased by 4,274.4, an increase of 22.9%.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness and be fatal.