Medical advisors on Gov. Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas split on lifting COVID-19 restrictions

Texas Politics

Updated to include a statement from Gov. Abbott’s office.

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift COVID-19 restrictions and rescind the Texas mask mandate was not met with unanimous support by his own advisory panel he formed to reopen the state.

In a Tuesday announcement, Abbott highlighted economic challenges as a chief reason for his need to expand business capacity. He also highlighted the nearly 6 million vaccine doses administered, record-setting numbers of daily doses given out, as well as the state’s positivity rate hitting below 10%.

“COVID still exists in Texas in the United States and across the globe,” Abbott said Tuesday. “But it is clear from the recoveries, from the vaccinations, from the reduced hospitalizations and from the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed.”

After his announcement, he told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, “we make decisions based upon medical science.”

But Abbott’s decision to do away with state mandates put in place during the pandemic was not entirely in line with his own medical advisors.

Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, serves on the Governor’s Open Texas Strike Force. He said the lifting of restrictions was premature.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” McClellan said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

The other three members of Abbott’s health care panel for the strike force are Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), Dr. John Zerwas, a former state lawmaker and current executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, and Dr. Parker Hudson, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I was not involved in this decision,” Hudson wrote in a statement. He did not expand further.

Abbott did consult Zerwas, who he hired as a special advisor in December.

“In my conversations with the governor, I said, ‘You know, I don’t think it’s a mandate from the state that is, you know, keeping people wearing masks and keeping people away from each other and keeping people washing their hands. That is a public health messaging success that has occurred over the months that we’ve been dealing with this,'” Zerwas said in a Zoom interview.

“Back in June, a mandate for masking probably was necessary, because we really hadn’t incorporated those behaviors to the extent that we have now,” Zerwas said, throwing in the “personal responsibility” phrase Abbott used in his announcement.

Zerwas said he consulted Abbott on the decision to lift the mask mandate and expand economic activity to 100%.

“I didn’t know that for any fact that I was necessarily the only person that the governor consulted on this, but he did reach out to me; I expressed to him my opinions and counsel,” Zerwas confirmed.

DSHS broke its social media silence Wednesday morning after Abbott’s announcement on Tuesday, posting recommendations to follow public health guidance. Those measures include wearing a mask, staying six feet apart and washing hands. Protection steps “crucial to contain more contagious COVID-19 variants, to help vaccines make a larger impact, to protect stressed hospitals and save lives,” the infographic in the department’s tweet stated.

“As Governor Abbott said, COVID-19 has not suddenly disappeared,” the department tweeted. “Texans should keep up the good work they’ve been doing to slow the spread as more people are vaccinated and we monitor COVID-19 variants.”

Appearing virtually in the Texas House Public Health Committee on Wednesday, Hellerstedt said Texans should “absolutely” wear a mask, and his recommendation on continuing personal hygiene practices and increased sanitizing measures, “has not changed.”

“Both the governor and I are on the same page in that the recommendations on what is helpful in preventing COVID-19, we share the same idea,” Hellerstedt said. He stated he still encouraged mask-wearing, but Abbott’s announcement means the government isn’t going to make people wear them.

Hellerstedt spoke with Abbott’s team prior to the announcement but did not speak with the governor directly about the speech, he testified.

Spokespersons for Hellerstedt and DSHS did not respond to information requests on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Zerwas said he did not know if the governor personally reached out to Hellerstedt, “but I know that they have regular conversations.”

“I think the governor was comfortable with the advice that he was getting,” Zerwas explained. “I don’t know that he was getting advice, just from me, frankly, but I certainly support the direction that the governor has taken.”

Abbott’s press secretary issued a statement Thursday morning.

“The Governor speaks regularly with Dr. Hellerstedt and Dr. Zerwas, along with others in the medical community, regarding yesterday’s announcement,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze wrote in an emailed statement. “All were in agreement that Texans should continue following medical advice and safe standards on preventing COVID-19 to protect themselves and their loved ones, just like they do on other medical issues. As the Governor mentioned yesterday, COVID-19 has not suddenly disappeared. Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility or the importance of caring for family members, friends, and your community.”

Abbott’s order allows county judges to implement capacity restrictions if hospitalizations relating to COVID-19 reach above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in any of the 22 hospital regions in the state for seven straight days.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden and his top medical advisors criticized Abbott’s move.

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said “now is not the time to release all restrictions.”

“We really do need to decrease the amount of virus that is circulating as we’re trying to vaccinate all the public,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday, noting every individual “is empowered to do the right thing here.”

“Regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for their health and their loved ones and communities, I would still encourage individuals to wear masks to socially distance and to do the right thing to protect their own house,” Walensky stated.

Biden called the decision a “big mistake.”

“I hope everybody’s realized by now these masks make a difference,” Biden told reporters Wednesday after being asked about the removal of restrictions in Texas and Mississippi. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease, because the way in which we were able to get the vaccines in peoples arms. We’ve been able to move that all the way up to the end of May… to have enough for every American… to get every adult American to get a shot.”

“The last thing we need is to have Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything is fine, take off your mask… forget it. It still matters,” Biden said.

Zerwas said the state would be prepared to re-implement restrictions Abbott is removing, if needed.

“I believe that Texas can open up its economy to an even more robust level than it’s been at so far… and they’ll do it safely,” Zerwas said. “And we’ll continue to follow the metrics, and if the metrics indicate to us that we need to step back and perhaps double down on some of the things that we’ve done before, we know how to do that.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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