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An Austin public health official working to get Texas lawmakers access to the COVID-19 vaccine — regardless of whether they are currently eligible — made a request to a local hospital to administer the shots to members gathering in the capital city for the 2021 legislative session, the official said late Friday.
In an attempt to defuse what he considers to be a public health risk to the city, Dr. Mark Escott, the interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority, told The Texas Tribune that he asked Ascension Seton hospital system “if they would be willing to vaccinate lawmakers and key staff if they had availability.”
He said he believes five to 10 legislators in both parties have taken advantage of the arrangement in recent weeks. He did not say when he made the request, how Ascension Seton responded or how lawmakers were notified.
The effort by Escott to vaccinate lawmakers was first reported in The Dallas Morning News. He told the newspaper that he made the request to the hospital to allow lawmakers access after he was unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the state to include them in the first round of Texans deemed eligible.
“I also told the State and Seton that I felt it was appropriate to include legislators in the current prioritization due to the risk to the community of this gathering and the importance of continuity of government as it pertains to the legislative session,” Escott said in an email. “I’ve been very clear about my recommendation to have legislators vaccinated.”
Ascension Seton Austin officials did not immediately return requests for comment but told The Dallas Morning News that they agreed to allow lawmakers to sign up for the shot at Escott’s request. They said they were not reserving or holding back doses for them that would otherwise go to members of the public who are currently eligible, according to the Morning News.
The news comes as providers are scrambling for enough vaccines to meet the demands of at least 8 million Texans who qualify for the shot. So far, the state has been allocated just over 2 million doses and administered more than half of them, according to state and federal numbers.
It was unclear how many of the lawmakers who got the shots also were eligible under the state’s current priority groups, who include Texans over age 65, residents of nursing homes, health care workers and people with additional illnesses that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
An Ascension Seton spokesperson told the Morning News that most of those vaccinated were eligible under state guidelines.
The biennial session, which began this week, draws hundreds of lawmakers and thousands of staffers, lobbyists and advocates to Austin from around the state for 140 days, and represents the largest gathering the capital city has seen since the pandemic began.
Escott called the session a “two-fold” risk — both to public health in a city “already dealing with an unprecedented surge” and to the ability of lawmakers to govern without being crippled by quarantines, illness and the deadly effects of the virus.
Escott floated the idea during a Dec. 22 meeting with some House Democratic chiefs of staff, who were called to help identify best practices for running offices during the session. He's previously said in public statements that he supports vaccinating lawmakers.
During the call, Escott mentioned the possibility of vaccinating lawmakers and staff through Travis County once members arrived in Austin for the session and said he hoped it would become official in the coming weeks, according to a legislative aide who participated on the call but was not authorized to speak publicly.
After the call, Phillip Martin, executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, sent the city an email requesting that if and when Escott’s proposal got the green light, Austin Public Health would coordinate with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to ensure “that this recommendation is out there and available to everyone ... and that one staff per office should receive it as well.”
“It’s a tremendous offer and makes sense both from a continuity of governance perspective, and that the City of Austin and Travis County want to take every step to mitigate the risk presented by the Legislature convening,” Martin wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Tribune. “We just want to confirm the offer is uniformly being made to everyone, and from there each Member and staff can make a decision that is best for them.”
State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the caucus, told the Tribune on Friday evening he was aware that Escott had floated the idea during that Dec. 22 call of lawmakers and some staff receiving the vaccine and notified state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and presumptive Texas House speaker at the time, and House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, of what had been said on the call.
But he said he didn’t know of anyone this week who had gotten the vaccine through the arrangement with Escott.
“In the days that followed [that call], DSHS [the Department of State Health Services] clarified that the vaccines were to begin to be administered to the 1B group, which does cover many members of the Legislature, and I’m glad that many of those members have been able to get the first dose of their vaccine,” Turner said. “Speaking for myself, I will get my first dose of the vaccine when DSHS decides that my age group is eligible.”
The latest news comes hours after state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, told the Tribune he had tested positive for the virus Thursday after the House gaveled out for the week. Deshotel said he received a rapid test outside the Capitol as he was headed home. His last test for the virus had been on Monday before the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 session the next day. He did not opt to receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The idea of vaccinating lawmakers has drawn support from some members, even before news that it would be available to them.
Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, a member of the Texas State Guard and thus already eligible for the vaccine, said in an interview earlier this week that he sees the need for lawmakers to be in a priority group. He had no plans yet to get the vaccine at that point, he said, and did not indicate that he knew about Escott’s efforts.
A few of his staff members have already contracted the virus, he said, giving him a peek into what might happen if the virus were to spread among members of the House and Senate.
“Don’t you want me there for that vote?” he said, recalling a conversation he had on the issue with a skeptical constituent. “Don’t you want me there in the game for discussion and debate? How would you feel if somebody, a staffer, exposed me to it, and I need to quarantine and I wasn’t in the game? We’re required to be here to debate in person, take those votes.”
Marissa Martinez contributed to this report.
Correction, Jan. 15, 2021: A previous version of this story misnamed a state agency. It is the Texas Division of Emergency Management, not the Texas Department of Emergency Management.