The Texas Nurses Association recently joined more than 50 other medical advocacy organizations calling for health facilities to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It is the only state-level organization to add their name to the declaration, which includes the signatures of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association.
This brings up a disappointing reality: that more Texas health organizations have not been similarly outspoken, including the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Association of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, and the Texas Academy of Family Physicians. These are all wonderful organizations that do wonderful work and have been outspoken on issues as diverse as reproductive health, reducing the number of uninsured and expanding the mental health workforce.
But when it comes to the biggest public health emergency of our time, the politics around vaccination have become so fractious that it has now become routine even for nurses and doctors to defy vaccine mandates, proffer anti-vaccination talking points and peddle quack treatments for COVID-19. As a physician, I find this unacceptable. As a concerned Texan, I know it bodes ill for our ability to pull together and defeat this pandemic when even our health care professionals prove susceptible to the anti-vaccination fervor that has gripped people’s minds across the state and nation.
The deadly results speak for themselves.
About 50% of Texas’ population is fully vaccinated, which is still well short of what experts think is necessary for herd immunity. Meanwhile, hospital intensive care units continue to be near capacity, people continue to defer needed treatments due to the crush of COVID patients, and unvaccinated Texans continue to die. Health care workers who are still in the fight report growing levels of frustration, burnout and deteriorating mental health.
This is exacerbated by the moral injury that comes from making life-and-death decisions and the whiplash of health care workers who were once hailed as heroes now being regularly assailed by patients and media personalities as pawns of the medical-industrial complex.
I have previously argued for an approach to vaccination that prioritizes equity and access. I have also argued that a narrow focus on vaccine hesitancy is unhelpful when there is still much we can do to build faith with communities on this issue.
In fact, many Texans have done us proud when it comes to promoting vaccine access. Every day, we see ordinary people, who lack the expertise of health care professionals or the resources of large health care organizations, innovate approaches to getting more shots into more arms.
What does it say to them that there are health care workers who would sooner quit than get vaccinated? What does it say to them that Joseph Mercola, a man who boasts the title of “doctor,” is one of the biggest and most influential purveyors of COVID pseudoscience?
It is true that some health organizations want to avoid sowing division in their ranks and courting the ire of politicians. Under normal circumstances, those would be compelling factors. But not now. What we need today are organizations that are willing to close ranks around science, around sound public policy, and around their own humanitarian missions. Given how this pandemic is fraying communities and injuring bodies and minds, it is not asking too much for professional associations to start asking that their members set the same example that many less privileged, less credentialed Texans already are.
During the past month, the U.S. reached a grim milestone: The number of people who have died of COVID-19 has now surpassed the death toll of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. In our state and elsewhere, political leaders have done worse than wash their hands of the issue by actively impeding mask and vaccine mandates. We need leadership from somewhere. The Texas Nurses Association is an example of what we need now. Other Texas health organizations need to follow suit.
Octavio N. Martinez, Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin.