The COVID-19 death toll — at 215,000 so far in the United States — should make pretty clear how important it is for elected leaders to follow the science on public health issues. But too many Texas Republicans have aligned themselves with ideological extremists and conspiracy theorists who are undermining an effective public health response to the crisis.
Consider the misleadingly named Texans for Vaccine Choice. The group is a nest of anti-science conspiracy theorists who don’t just oppose mandatory school vaccination policies for highly contagious diseases like measles and mumps. School vaccines have saved countless lives over the past half-century. But the group recklessly argues that vaccines are dangerous, which exasperated public health experts and scientists have repeatedly pointed out is a lie.
This year anti-vaxxers have, naturally, turned their attention to COVID-19. But they don’t just object to a possible vaccine that provides protection from the pandemic. They also reject common-sense public health measures that have been a mainstay in preventing or at least slowing the spread of highly infectious diseases.
On June 1, for example, Texans for Vaccine Choice attacked contact tracing — tracing and alerting people who may have been exposed to someone known to have tested positive for COVID-19. Such efforts are especially important when treatment options are limited and there is no vaccine, but the group issued an “action alert” urging its supporters to contact Gov. Greg Abbott in opposition: “The government should stop thinking its job is to keep everyone healthy, and instead focus on protecting our rights.” The group’s sample letter to Gov. Abbott even claimed that contact-tracing was unnecessary because the COVID-19 was already “disappearing.” That irresponsible claim proved tragically wrong for thousands of Texans who have since died from the disease.
The next month, as new COVID-19 cases and deaths soared higher, the group demanded that the Republican Party of Texas hold an in-person state convention despite public health orders barring large gatherings. On July 10, a new “action alert” from the group screamed: “Texans’ Liberty Under Attack!” Rather than address the rising case load and death toll those public health orders were trying to address, the alert promoted a bizarre ideological screed: “This is about saving Texas because if Texas falls, we ALL fall. And falling means socialism.” It went on to claim that supporters of those public health orders were even part of a “medical mandate mob.”
You might think most elected leaders would consider a group so ideologically extreme to be toxic. But that would be underestimating how extreme the Texas Republican Party has become. In fact, many Republican leaders in Texas actually echo the group’s absurd rhetoric.
“No vaccine cures a disease,” state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, declared in 2017, apparently oblivious to the fact that vaccines prevent diseases from happening in the first place.
Last year state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, ridiculously attacked a pediatrician who expressed concern about the increasing number of Texas children who aren’t getting vaccinated:
“Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime. Like every other business. Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity. It’s disgusting.”
Not surprisingly, anti-science extremists like Zedler and Stickland received an A++ and an A+, respectively, on the the Texans for Vaccine Choice 2017 legislative report card. In fact, half of Texas House Republicans — 48 of 95 — got an A, A+ or A++ on the same report card that session.
This November, the group is officially backing 42 Republican candidates for the Texas House, 37 of them incumbents. The group is also backing three Republican state Senate incumbents. These aren’t just backbenchers. They include key members of the Republican legislative leadership team, such as Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee; Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee; and Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, chair of the House General Investigating Committee.
A responsible leader would reject the support of anti-science extremists like Texans for Vaccine Choice and others who undermine public health efforts during a deadly pandemic. But the list of Republican incumbents and other GOP candidates backed by the group is a virtual “who’s who” of irresponsible leaders. Remember that when you vote in this election.