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The Vaccine May Be The Cure For Our Economy, But Texas May Be An Obstacle.

A man yells into a megaphone in the middle of a large crowd in front of the Texas Capitol.
Callaghan O'Hare
/
Reuters
Alex Jones screams into a megaphone as protesters against the state's extended stay-at-home order demonstrate at the Capitol building in Austin on April 18, 2020.

Misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines is outsized in the state, and several of these campaigns against vaccines and what people feel are encroachments on personal freedom have their roots here.

Everyone from the Federal Reserve chairman to the oil workers in remote West Texas agree that the vaccine is key to economic recovery. The return of shopping, flying and driving means people will get jobs back.

Texas will play an outsized role in the success or failure of the vaccine rollout. It’s the second most populous state in the union and is a hub for anti-vaccine misinformation. While the vaccine may be a lynchpin of the recovery, Texas may be a big obstacle to vaccine adoption.

Groups with reasonable concerns over business shutdowns — given the economic devastation and the lack of federal assistance — have protested coronavirus restrictions.

But those protests morphed from “Let us shop” and “Let us open our businesses” to something like “We don’t want to wear masks” to full on anti-science and anti-vaccine sentiments.

These kinds of angry and misinformed protests have a long history in Texas. That's why Rehka Lakshmanan said she was not surprised to see this start to happen across the country.

“I think because of the experiences a lot of us have had in Texas over the past few years and... the early attempts to politicize vaccines... it was just a matter of the nation catching up with that line of thinking, which is extremely unfortunate,” she said.

Lakshmanan works for The Immunization Partnership — a Texas-based advocacy organization. And she said it was tough watching these ideas on the fringes of Texas’ far-right go mainstream across the country.

“It was deja vu just on an extremely amplified scale and you could just see it as a slow moving train wreck,” she said.

Since 2003 the state has had an increasingly active anti vaccine community. That year a fringe group of far-right Republicans managed to get the law changed.

They wrote new exemptions for people with philosophical or personal beliefs to not vaccinate their children. Then, the numbers of kids not getting a measles vaccine in Texas exploded, going from less than 3,000 kids to more than 72,000 in 2020. But that only includes students in public and private schools.

Texas has the largest homeschooled population in the country — some 350,000 kids — so the number of unimmunized kids is likely well over 100,000.

Lakshmanan said these groups and parents are very well organized.

“They're extremely loud and they are engaged as citizens with their lawmakers,” she said.

The rhetoric around false medical claims about vaccines and autism that these groups used to gain traction in Texas have taken a backseat in recent years to “medical freedom” and “parental rights.”

Concerns over vaccines sort of went from being a far-left concern over big pharma and was adopted by libertarians.

As ideas, those “medical freedoms and parental rights” are not persuasive with most doctors, but are very persuasive with libertarians and the far-right.

The two terms along with individual freedom are linked inextricably, and are often the core tenets of nationwide protests around masks and other COVID-abatement strategies.

But even before COVID the movement was growing nationwide. As a consequence last year Texas had more measles cases than in 30 years. According to the Texas Children’s Hospital the U.S. as a whole had more than 1,200 cases across 31 states in 2019. It was the most since 1992.

Texas had far fewer, at around 22. It was still a high water mark. Places like Austin saw the first case in 20 years and outbreaks occurred in El Paso.

A recent University of Pittsburgh study says the state will see a 4,000% increase in the chance of a measles outbreak if the vaccination rate continues to decline.

Doctors were at times baffled; the young ones had never seen a measles rash before. Older doctors had to come in and tell them.

Even the Misinformation is Bigger in Texas

The fact that some communities don’t have mass adoption means that herd immunity is already being chipped away.

“Outbreaks are going to be a new normal, right? I mean, we're already seeing measles come back. And then we have all the deaths from COVID-19,” said Dr. Peter Hotez.

He is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston, a vaccine researcher and the author of “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism” — a book about his daughter.

And Hotez said the bad vaccination information is coming primarily from Texas, and a cast of Texas residents.

That includes Andrew Wakefield. He was the British medical doctor who wrote the big study linking the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine to autism. The study would later be retracted by the prestigious journal The Lancet over his unethical behavior, the data would later be called a “scientific scam” and Wakefield would lose his medical license.

But the damage was done. Desperate parents who wanted answers to why their children changed seemingly overnight because of the disability, latched on. The late 1990s article kicked off a host of conspiracies fueling movements today.

And now — Wakefield — lives in Austin. He started a nonprofit. He’s producing big movies that push his pseudoscience.

Another Austin native Alex Jones has peddled dark, secretive cabals between big tech and big pharma on his website Infowars.

Joe Rogan — one of the biggest podcasters around — also lives in Austin, and while he has said he is not anti-vaccine, he has been criticized for having prominent anti-vaccine personalities on the show which has a robust, conspiracy-loving audience.

But he also had Dr. Peter Hotez on to argue against anti-vaccine claims. The Houston doctor has made it his personal mission to fight this disinformation with facts.

“One of the things I'm doing now is trying to reach out to every conservative news outlet I can to try to reach populations in those in those defined areas,” he said. “Most families are not deeply dug in... they're just so inundated with the misinformation because the anti-vaccine groups dominate the internet.”

His advocacy and his work trying to dispel the myths around the MMR vaccine and autism have made him a target.

Wild, Wild Stuff

The theories around the COVID-19 vaccine have blasted past the pseudoscience of MMR past the stratosphere and into a science-free parallel universe. Some believe the COVID vaccine is a ploy to enslave the human race.

“(They say) ridiculous things like the mRNA vaccines will modify our genome and we’re recreating genetically modified humans. And they're saying this is a conspiracy to stick chips into our skin in order to trace our whereabouts,” Hotez recounted. “And it's all being perpetrated by Bill Gates or me or Tony Fauci. And somehow it involves Area 51, too.”

In a more recent episode that set the music world ablaze, the schematic for the chip that will be in the COVID-19 vaccine was discovered. Some brave soul of a whistleblower had somehow gotten these technical specifications out to the public.

Once emerged, electrical diagrams turned out to be for a guitar pedal, specifically the Boss Metal Zone. TPR has reached out to the manufacturer Roland to inquire about their knowledge about the conspiracy and more importantly if absolutely thrashing on the guitar (Boss in tow) will protect us from the world-changing pandemic. Thus far they have declined to comment.

For the believers, the conspiracy minded, or just folks who think the vaccine is being rushed to market — the people willing to trust giant conglomerates (who are guilty of things like spreading an opioid crisis) are the gullible ones.

In some ways, Dr. Hotez said, Project Warp Speed is good at science but bad at talking about it.

And the FDA was largely silent on its successes.

Added to that, President Trump himself has been a proponent of vaccine conspiracies in his past and has often undermined his own public health officials today.

“That's caused damage. And then the anti vaccine groups are piling in and, and dominating the internet,” said Hotez.

Well-meaning people are often left wondering who to trust. And meanwhile the picture here in Texas is getting darker and darker. The Institute for Health metrics and evaluation projects 15,000 Texans will die between November 2020 and a week or two after the inauguration.

“I don't know how to say it in any starker terms. Because it's no longer just a fringe group. These are (people who) have become mainstream, and I can attribute deaths in Texas, both during that summer wave and now, to anti-science,” said Hotez.

He added that politics have polluted the conversation around vaccines, and people who fall right of center are less likely to get the vaccine as a result. That even extends to front line medical staff. Dr. Joseph Varon told NPR’s Steve Inskeep half his nurses at Houston Memorial Medical Center aren’t getting the vaccine, and it isn’t the only Texas hospital where many are opting out.

How It Hit The Mainstream: Understandable Skepticism

All skepticism is far from unwarranted. Researchers only have around six months of safety data on the leading vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccines were created inside a year, while others take at times more than a decade to test and be approved.

Additionally, there are also ethnic and racial groups who historically have either been neglected or abused by the medical establishment.

You have the Tuskegee experiment for instance, where Black Americans with syphilis were allowed to die without treatment so researchers could observe the progression of the disease.

And beyond being scared of the vaccine there are other logistical issues with people taking it. Texas in particular is a high poverty state with low access to basic medical attention. There are many poor neighborhoods that lack access to a grocery store let alone a pharmacy or a hospital.

Effective vaccines are the key to recovery: to opening businesses, ball parks and theaters. To giving people their jobs back. But we know we’re facing high resistance to taking it: from libertarians to anti-vaxxers who mistrust Big Pharma, to high rates of mistrust from Black and undocumented communities.

At least 70% of society needs to have the vaccine to achieve immunity — in order to return to normalcy. And there’s urgency. It makes a big difference whether we start to return to normal now, versus six months from now or 12 months from now. Many people are holding on by a thread — financially and mental health-wise.

And if we don’t have something approaching nationwide herd immunity within months from now, drastic measures will be considered. One proposed idea for increasing rates of vaccination came from economist Robert Litan from the Brookings Institution. He suggested paying people.

“If you're trying to persuade people who are otherwise reluctant to take the vaccine, how much is it going to take? And I said, just ask myself, you know, would I change my mind for 100 or 200 bucks? I didn't, I don't think many people would change,” he posed.

“But I think if you'd tell people $1,000 — especially when they have a family of four — that's $4,000. Now you're talking real money. And I think that at $1,000 you can get enough people to switch.”

Is that too much money for federal governments to be handing out? In Litan’s view, it's a lot cheaper to pay people for fast herd immunity than it is to pay for the bailouts we’ve been doing this past year.

And it would beat the $600 one-time payment that Congress has talked about after nine months of doing little.

“I'm talking to you in Texas. And I, all I do is see on T.V. every night, these lines and people, it's just tragic that people don't have enough money to buy food,” Litan said “This is America, we shouldn't be living in a country like this. And so the sooner we get back to normal, the better and $270 billion, by the way, so it is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits.”

We are in the toughest economic crisis in several generations and this is the thing we have to get done as a society. Still, coercing people to put something in their body with the minimal data available is something medical ethicists will remain deeply uncomfortable with.

In the end the vaccine appears to be society’s best hope for collective normalcy. But many Americans seem unwilling to think in terms of that collective.

Texas Public Radio provided this story.