The Guardian

Texans scramble to get vaccinated after Republican governor says no more masks

Greg Abbott says state can ‘open 100%’ without masks – but millions remain unvaccinated and navigating the state’s vaccine bureaucracy is fraught A vaccination clinic in New Braunfels. Governor Abbott’s order to lift mask mandates fueled condemnation from Democratic leaders across the state. Photograph: Mikala Compton/AP In Houston, a long line of cars wraps around a cluster of white tents in the parking lot of NRG Stadium – a Texas-sized vaccination hub. Texans roll up to the drive-through, hang an arm out of the window to get their shot, and leave as if the vaccination site were one of many fast-food restaurants sprawled across the state. Men and women in army green and face shields direct traffic, scan QR codes and administer shots containing the ticket to a renewed social life and some peace of mind. That reassurance could not come too soon for Texans, since the statewide mask mandate has now officially been lifted, leaving millions of those still unvaccinated more vulnerable to an infectious disease that has killed 527,000 people in the US, including more than 45,000 in Texas. On 2 March, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, announced the statewide mask mandate implemented over the summer would suddenly cease to exist as of Wednesday. At first glance, one might see the announcement as the light at the end of the tunnel. But upon further examination, it seems Texas is jumping the gun. According to the Texas health department, the number of those fully vaccinated in the state currently stands at 2,463,005 – about 16% of Texas’s near 15 million over-18 population. Texas currently ranks 38th in the nation for total administered vaccinations. Announcing the end of the mask mandate, Abbott said last week: “It is now time to open Texas 100%. So today, I am issuing a new executive order that rescinds most of the earlier executive orders: effective next Wednesday, all businesses of any kind are allowed to open 100%. Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.” The announcement fueled condemnation from Democratic leaders across the state. Some argued Abbott’s order was a distraction from the state’s failure to keep its energy grid powered during a brutal winter storm that left millions without electricity, heat and water for days. The Harris county judge, Lina Hidalgo, said of Abbott’s move: “At best, this is wishful thinking, that Covid is somehow less dangerous than it was yesterday. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.” She was referring to the deadly Arctic-temperature storms that hit the state with little warning last month and caused mass power outages and suffering. Hidalgo urged constituents to continue wearing a mask and practice social distancing until more people are vaccinated. Soon after his announcement in Lubbock, Abbott spuriously blamed Joe Biden’s administration for allowing the entry of Covid-19 positive “illegal immigrants” into the US. The former San Antonio mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro expressed outrage that the governor was already planning on making undocumented migrants a scapegoat for any surge in Covid cases. He said: “You have a governor who basically is trying to pass off the blame to undocumented immigrants when we see the numbers start to go up here because of his terrible policy decisions … there’s no basis whatsoever to suggest that immigrants are spreading Covid-19 in Texas. There is evidence to suggest that the decision the governor made to kill the mask mandate and also to open up business to 100% will cause a lot more spread of coronavirus in Texas.” Castro is a frequent customer of Halcyon, an eclectic coffee shop and lounge on San Antonio’s pedestrian-only River Walk area. On Twitter, he applauded the establishment’s sign on the door that read: “Despite the recent ordinance, we as a business have decided to still require masks when not seated at the table. Thank you for your understanding and for helping us keep our staff and patrons safe.” When I go shopping, most people aren’t wearing masks. They see other non mask-wearers and they will high-five each other Angelica Guerra Wells Kristopher Strompl, one of Halcyon’s managers, says it is too soon for the mask mandate to be lifted. “The only reason [Covid] case numbers were down was because of the storm,” Strompl said. “We will continue to wear a mask. It’s an extra layer of protection.” Before the lifting of the mask mandate, Strompl said some patrons had been less than respectful of Halcyon’s mask policy. He said he expects more cases like this once the mask order is lifted. “It was the equivalent of a child throwing a temper tantrum,” Strompl said, recounting the time his team had to threaten to call the police before the customer eventually left on their own. In Houston, Picos Mexican restaurant has dealt with even harsher reactions from customers refusing to wear a mask. Some customers even threatened to report staff to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). The restaurant’s co-owner, Arnoldo Richards, told CNN: “This gentleman just said I should not be going against the governor of Texas and we should respect his mandate on lifting the ban. If not, he could send immigration to come and check our green cards. And I thought that was highly racist. I thought it was inappropriate. And had it not been a Mexican restaurant, he might not have said anything or referred to checking our green cards.” Angelica Guerra Wells lives in New Braunfels, a town just outside of San Antonio. She describes her town as “very conservative”. “The norm here already is that when I go grocery shopping, most people aren’t wearing masks,” Guerra Wells said. “They see other non mask-wearers and they will high-five each other. I’m trying to buy bananas and they’re high-fiving and talking over the food. This is ridiculous.” Throughout the pandemic, Guerra Wells went into her office every day. She just recently quit, citing her company’s dangerous Covid policies as part of her decision to look for a new job. “I had to go into the office every single day. Everyone did. How they handled the [pandemic] is kind of the reason I left. They tried to implement stuff about keeping distance, checking temperatures, not allowing people into the office, but none of it was actually enforced,” Guerra Wells said. “It felt like they were putting on a show that they were going to be following these policies.” Governor Greg Abbott last week at an event to announce he is rescinding the mask mandate. Photograph: Justin Rex/AP Guerra Wells and her husband live in a one-bedroom apartment. When he contracted Covid, she said her employers told her she should come in if she felt fine and tested negative, despite the possibility of transmitting the virus to other co-workers. “I had one employee whose wife and daughter caught Covid. He didn’t catch it but soon after, his brother caught [it] and died,” Guerra Wells said. “Today is my new company’s one-year anniversary of working from home. I feel like they’re taking people’s safety into consideration a lot more.” Guerra Wells is now fully vaccinated. Her health conditions pushed her near the top of the list, but she said she still feels guilty that she had vaccine access while others who need it don’t. “I am hopeful that we’ll get back to some sort of normalcy, but I think it needs to happen first with better access to vaccinations. These 90-year-olds can’t get vaccinations because they’re not quick enough on the computer. It’s really hard to get through on the phone lines. I had to wait four hours just to talk to someone and then get hung up on,” she said. She added: “I’m hearing far too often from pharmacy techs that they’re having to throw away vaccines at the end of the day, or scrambling to call their friends to come take one.” In many parts of Texas, vaccination appointments are being offered on a first-come, first-serve basis to those who fall in either category 1a or 1b, as defined by the state health department. But even those in neither category are securing appointments, since there is no process to verify whether someone has an underlying health condition or works in a school or care facility. Eunice Lee is a student pharmacist in San Antonio. She believes the faulty vaccine rollout process in the state, combined with the mask mandate order being lifted, will cause a spike in Covid cases. “When [Abbott] made the announcement that he was getting rid of the mask mandate, only 6-7% of Texans had been vaccinated. It came out of the blue, especially after we had the winter snowstorm. A lot of people were still displaced from that. A lot of people still didn’t have food or water and weren’t even living at home,” Lee said. “As healthcare workers, a lot of people were shocked and angry.” Lee and her family were personally affected by the winter storm, like millions of other Texans. “I had a family member who was supposed to get their vaccine during that week of the storm, and because that pharmacy didn’t have electricity, we had to unfortunately miss that appointment. I can imagine how many more people were in my grandma’s situation who missed their vaccine,” Lee said. “That wiped a week’s worth of people who could’ve been vaccinated. That probably hurt our numbers even more.” Many young people are assisting older relatives with booking their vaccine appointments, because navigating the website of a county or pharmacy chain can be daunting to those elderly and most in need. Digital literacy is often the key to successfully acquiring a vaccine. So when a spot opens up, the fastest person will win – regardless of how great another person’s health risks are. Lee was eventually able to secure a vaccine appointment for her grandmother, but said she had to stay up “night after night” to snag one, despite working in a pharmacy. “Since I can use the computer easily, I would go to all the different companies’ websites and open up all the tabs, like a weird ritual every day. If I wasn’t able to drive across town, she would not have had that appointment. She doesn’t know the roads as well,” Lee said. Lee has been relying on “intel” from her other pharmacist friends to find out when new shipments of vaccines are expected to arrive and when websites would be updated. She shares any information she knows with patients, but says those that are older are often uncomfortable with driving too far and to unfamiliar places to get their vaccines. “It’s disappointing and frustrating personally for me and my family, but also for others around me who are in the same situation,” Lee said. “We have the manpower to vaccinate all of these people, but we need to get [vaccines] into the local and community pharmacies like we do for flu shots. Hopefully, we can get a majority of the population vaccinated, but this rollout process is hindering us at this point. “It makes me feel like the governor isn’t looking out for his constituents. To me, it’s just bizarre. Masks are only going to help if the majority of people are wearing them.”

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