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Texas Gov. Lifts Pandemic Restrictions, Defying Public Health Experts, and Blames Migrants for COVID

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Texas is the largest state to lift its mandate on face masks and fully reopen businesses, joining a growing movement in states governed by Republicans to ease pandemic restrictions even as experts warn it is too soon to do so, despite the accelerating pace of vaccinations in the United States. “This is completely politically motivated,” says Dr. Dona Murphey, a physician scientist and community organizer in Houston who is helping to lead a campaign demanding Texas reinstate the mask mandate. She says Republican Governor Greg Abbott is ending the state’s pandemic restrictions as “a maneuver to conceal failures” related to the Texas electrical grid, which went down during a recent winter storm.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday fully vaccinated people can safely gather together in small groups without masks, as long as everyone involved is at low risk for severe COVID-19.

The new recommendation comes as Texas is set to fully lift its COVID lockdown restrictions tomorrow for everyone, not just those who are vaccinated, making it the largest state to do so. At least 35 states have kept their mask-wearing rules in place, with various levels of enforcement, but Texas joins Mississippi, Louisiana and Michigan in announcing plans to lift restrictions. Meanwhile, Montana, Iowa, North Dakota and Mississippi have already lifted their mask-wearing mandates. Michigan has eased other lockdown rules. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina never enforced mask mandates.

It was on the same day last week that CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said “now is not the time” to loosen restrictions, because of an increase in COVID cases and deaths, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott defied public health experts and issued his executive order to end all COVID-19 restrictions starting March 10th. He tweeted, quote, “Texas is OPEN 100%,” drawing scorn from President Biden, who accused him of, quote, “Neanderthal thinking.” Abbott fought back by accusing the Biden administration of “releasing COVID positive illegal immigrants in our state.”

This comes as CBS News reports over 3,200 unaccompanied children were detained at Border Patrol facilities along the Texas-Mexico border Monday alone, and nearly half were held for longer than the legal limit of three days. Throughout Texas, cities and businesses have vowed to continue their mask mandates.

For more, we go to Houston, where we’re joined by Dr. Dona Murphey, a physician scientist, community organizer, co-founder of Doctors in Politics PAC. Dr. Murphey is a survivor of COVID-19 who for months experienced ongoing symptoms, a condition being described as long COVID or long hauler. She’s helping to lead a campaign to demand Texas reinstate the mask mandate.

Doctor, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you respond to what Governor Abbott has done, lifting the mask mandate and opening Texas 100% for business?

DR. DONA MURPHEY: Sure. I think it’s really important here to not be distracted by the fact that this is completely politically motivated. He made this pronouncement on what is Texas Independence Day, and it is a maneuver to conceal failures to modernize our electric grid in Texas. In the weeks prior to this executive order, we had dozens of deaths across the state from hypothermia, from carbon monoxide poisoning, from fires, with untold economic impacts. He also is pandering to this misguided conflation of the mask mandate with infringements of personal freedom. And then, within days, as you alluded to, he rejected an offer for federal aid on COVID-19 testing of asylum seekers, blaming them for infections in South Texas. And this is despite the fact that the test positivity among those migrants was actually lower than the population at large in Cameron County, which is the county of entry. So I think it’s really important that we not get consumed by the affront to scientific knowledge and our understanding of this virus and how this virus is transmitted. That is not what this is about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Murphey, could you talk about this continuing rift between the major cities of Texas — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso — and the state leaders on the issue of how best to deal with the pandemic?

DR. DONA MURPHEY: Yeah, that has been super frustrating to witness, because, you know, the political party of our good governor is one that is, ostensibly, ideologically committed to local control, and despite this, throughout the pandemic, repeatedly, the governor has tried to remove local authority in determining what to do with managing the pandemic. So, a lot of our cities, which are democratically held cities, the leadership in those cities have often tried to do what is more consistent with what has been advised by the CDC, for instance, and the governor has tried to pull back throughout.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us a little more, Dr. Murphey, on this issue of the border? You have him attacking immigrants, saying they’re bringing in COVID, yet at the same time he rejected money from the federal government to test immigrants who are coming in.

DR. DONA MURPHEY: That’s right. And it’s actually the case that they have been testing by the tens of thousands. I’ve actually been very involved with work at the border throughout the Migrant Protection Protocols in Matamoros and also in Brownsville remotely, because I run a program in Matamoros. And yeah, so I’ve been very plugged in, actually, to the medical care that’s been provided, and also all of the efforts that have been made by nongovernmental organizations, as well as local government there, to attempt to mitigate the impact of COVID among that population. So, again, this is, as I said, a very politically motivated maneuver.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you if you could talk a little bit about your own personal experience with contracting COVID-19 and if you could talk somewhat about the vaccine rollouts in Houston that you’re aware of, because there have been recent reports, in the last day or two, that there’s a disproportionate exhibiting of side effects among women who receive the vaccine compared to men. I’m wondering if you might have some thoughts on that, as well.

DR. DONA MURPHEY: Sure. So, my personal experience with COVID, you know, I was actually, ironically, involved in COVID education and organizing and advocacy about a month before I myself got sick with COVID, unfortunately, and then became a COVID long hauler, where I was grappling with pretty moderate symptoms at some point that were cognitive and psychiatric. So this was not trivial at all. That being said, I also was not as disabled as some of my colleagues and others in patient-led research and advocacy communities, so I was very — I felt privileged that I was not so disabled. But it was still very trying. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the long-term implications of COVID. So, it’s been a very difficult path for me. I mean, most recently, this past week, I had significant symptoms that kept me from being able to write, like, original material, and I do a lot of writing for my work in the advocacy that I do. Yeah, so that’s been a source of frustration.

As far as the rollout in Texas, we have less than 20% of Texans who have been fully vaccinated. Some counties are grappling with such low rates of vaccination that they’ve actually opened up vaccinations to the general public without any restrictions. And that tells you something. A lot of those counties actually are in East Texas, so not too far from me in the Greater Houston area. Yeah, so it has been very problematic.

As to the disproportionate impact on women, I want to be very careful here, because it’s hard to know until you have some distance to see what the side effects are and whether they actually reflect realities — right? — underlying realities. And what I don’t want to do is to dissuade anyone from getting the vaccination. I’ve kept up with a lot of the side effect profiles for Pfizer, Moderna, and now Johnson & Johnson has recently been released, so we’ll see what that looks like. But, in general, the side effects are mild to moderate. And I will tell you that if the alternative is death and permanent disability, which is a very real possibility for up to 30% of the population exhibiting long-hauler symptoms, that is a risk worth taking.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been vaccinated? And for people who have had COVID, do you get one or two shots when it’s a two-shot deal? Of course, Johnson & Johnson is just one shot.

DR. DONA MURPHEY: Yeah, I have not yet been vaccinated, because I’ve felt that there has been a little bit of pushback on physicians who do not see patients in person, which I do not. I read EEGs or brainwave tests for patients from the comfort of my own home. And for as long as we don’t have people having access, adequate access, to the vaccines, I’ve felt a little bit uncomfortable putting myself forward as somebody who needs to get vaccinated as, quote, “a frontline worker.” So I’ve been waiting, honestly, until it’s opened up to the general population. I have thought, actually, to drive over to East Texas, where they have opened it up, where I don’t think that I would be taking someone’s place. But yeah — I’m sorry, the second question, I don’t remember now, that you asked.

AMY GOODMAN: One or two shots?

DR. DONA MURPHEY: One or two shots, yes. So, for COVID long haulers, a lot of people are saying, and in some countries, globally, they are suggesting, that COVID long haulers just get one shot. I don’t know that there is a lot of evidence about that yet. I was planning on getting the two shots, if I got Pfizer or Moderna, and then the one, of course, with Johnson & Johnson.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about this Mexican restaurant in Houston that said it’s going to keep its mask rule in place. So, people threatened to call ICE on the staff in retaliation. Can you talk about what happened there? It’s called Picos. And talk about this rising anger and violence in Texas over pandemic restrictions, and how Abbott has fueled this, both the anti-science, racist, xenophobic misinformation around the pandemic.

DR. DONA MURPHEY: Yeah. I mean, again, I think he is deliberately trying to direct our attention to a narrative that is consistent with his political thinking, which is that the cause of these problems is something that can be placed on others, right? Not us, but on others. And I think that’s part of what happened here, is that people, unfortunately, are following his modeling, and that’s why this occurred, right?

You know, Houston is a very diverse and, in many ways, a very inclusive place. I know Picos, actually. I used to go there before they moved to their current location. And that somebody was saying that they were going to call ICE on the folks there is a reflection of the impact that Abbott has had on the narrative of who is responsible for the transmission of COVID. And in many ways, I feel like he is directly responsible, and then, certainly, people who are following his example are responsible, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Dona Murphey, we want to thank you for being with us, physician scientist, community organizer, co-founder of the Doctors in Politics PAC and a long-haul survivor of COVID-19.

This is Democracy Now!, It’s the 50th anniversary of one of the more audacious events that happened in protest and resistance around the Vietnam War. And it happened in — it happened in Pennsylvania, in Media, Pennsylvania. It was March 8th, 1971. Eight activists broke into an FBI office. Stay tuned to hear what happened.

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