By the Houston Chronicle

Evidence that the pandemic is passing from our lives is all around us. People out and about — in restaurants, in parks, at ballgames, at backyard gatherings over the Fourth — are glorious signs that life is beginning again. The goal now is to keep that momentum going.

Unfortunately, that’s anything but guaranteed. The so-called delta variant, which emerged in India and then spread like wildfire around the world, is wreaking havoc in countries with low vaccination rates. It seems to be driving a renewed surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

This country isn’t being spared either. The delta variant now is the dominant strain of the virus, and accounted for 51 percent of new cases in the past two weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. That’s not because COVID-19 vaccines are unavailable, but because residents of certain areas stubbornly refuse to be vaccinated. Areas of recalcitrance include parts of Texas, as well as rural and small-town areas of the South, West and Midwest. Most are red states run by Trump-obeisant governors and state legislatures.

The highly contagious delta variant may have sparked the recent outbreak that ravaged a youth camp sponsored by a Houston-area church. Children and adults came home from camp with more than just a sunburn. At least 125 individuals tested positive for COVID-19.

“Clearly, COVID is not over,” Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University, told the Texas Tribune.

“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman added. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children. … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”

The way out is relatively simple: People who get vaccinated are protected, even if they are exposed to the delta variant. They get the shot, they protect themselves, they protect their friends, they protect family members. They get on with life. That’s how simple it is. Some few may still get sick, even with the vaccines, but when they do their cases are far less likely to require hospitalization and much less likely to get others seriously ill.

Unfortunately, Texas is one of several red states where vaccination rates have stagnated, mainly because of Republican reluctance. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that nearly half of Texas Republican voters say thanks but no thanks on getting a COVID-19 vaccination. A Harvard University analysis of vaccination rates by congressional district found that the 14 Texas districts with the lowest vaccination rates are all represented by Republicans.

Too many Republican governors, Republican congressmen and Republican state officials would rather play political games with their constituents’ lives than do the right thing. They would rather ridicule President Joe Biden’s insistence that people get vaccinated — even if he has to send vaccinators door-to-door, needle in hand to offer to deliver the shot — than to tell their constituents the truth about vaccines and urge them to do the right thing.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, is an exception. Although he criticized candidate Biden for questioning vaccine safety under the Trump administration, the congressman told the Chronicle he will “continue to support and urge the White House to make progress on these vaccinations.”

“I don’t think we should give up,” he said, “until we’ve continued to drive these vaccination rates up higher, because it certainly, to a layman, is clear that the cases we’re seeing and the illnesses we’re seeing are coming from unvaccinated Americans.”

Just imagine if former President Donald Trump said something similar. Imagine him summoning the press to his New Jersey golf club, where he would urge his fellow Americans to get vaccinated. “Get the shot,” he would say, or maybe it would be, “Get the damn shot!” Millions of vaccine skeptics would get their shots.

We all know, of course, that Trump would never perform such a public service; he’s not that kind of guy. In fact, when he himself got the shot just before leaving the White House, he failed to even mention it. But what about a Republican governor? What about Greg Abbott?

We can imagine the popular and influential Texan calling the press into the venerable Governor’s Reception Room in the Capitol, so that he can talk straight to his fellow Texans about vaccines. Arrayed behind him would be state health officials, doctors and nurses and a bipartisan bevy of lawmakers in town for the special session, including several legislators who are physicians.

“We’re a stubborn bunch,” he might say. “We don’t like to be told what to do, whether it’s a Mexican Army looking to take a Texian cannon at Gonzales or intrusive big-government busy-bodies nosing into our business.”

(Someone behind him mumbles something about Biden going door to door like a Fuller Brush salesman. Republican lawmakers chuckle.)

The governor continues: “Yes, we can be stubborn, stubborn as granddad’s old mule, but there’s something else about Texans that many of our fellow Americans don’t understand: We’re a big-hearted people. We look out for each other. We care for each other.

“That’s what happened when Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston a few years ago; their fellow Texans — and our Louisiana neighbors, I might add — rushed in to help. That’s what happened just last February, when vicious winter cold, dangerous cold, deprived so many of us of power and water. Neighbors checked on each other; they shared. That’s what Texans do when times are tough.”

Of course, the governor might decide to x out the winter storm reference, since his office has not covered itself in glory in response, but the point he would be leading up to is pertinent: Getting the shot benefits everyone, not just the one being jabbed.

The governor might even mention that the more Texans who are vaccinated the closer we get to herd immunity. He might quote a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, pointing out that to reach herd immunity a population needs about 80 percent protected. Fortunately, that protection can come both from those who are fully vaccinated and those who had the disease, have recovered and are now protected. As the Morning News noted, those two figures in Dallas County surpassed 80 percent over the July Fourth holiday, so the county is considered to have achieved herd immunity.

“Believe me, you’d rather reach herd immunity through getting a couple of shots than contracting a life-threatening illness,” the governor might say.

“I know that some of you are wary,” he might add. “But trust me, the vaccine is safe. It’s not some devious government plot concocted with the help of a mad scientist in Wuhan, China. George Soros is not trying to make you sick. Bill Gates is not implanting microchips in the arms of gullible Americans.”

Abbott might also remind his listeners that more than 52,000 of our fellow Texans have died of the virus. Ninety-nine percent were unvaccinated.

“Look,” he continues, adding perhaps a forgivable amount of spin, “these are Trump vaccines. The president got them to us in record time, and it’s up to us not to waste them.

“Trust me. It’s time for every eligible Texan to roll up their sleeve and get the shot.”

The governor might confess to his fellow Texans that he and his family have been vaccinated (assuming they have). He might urge those standing with him to hold up their own vaccinated arms. “And except for a little soreness the next day, you’re not going to feel a thing,” he might say, chuckling. Those behind him nod their heads in agreement.Abbott would not be the first Republican governor to talk sense about vaccines. Last week, Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia urged his state’s residents to get the shot. “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem,” he said.

So, is Abbott up to the challenge? Can he tell the truth about vaccines to his fellow Texans? Or is he running scared? Running from the likes of primary challengers Allen West and Don Huffines, not to mention the crew of anti-vaccine hysteria spreaders on Fox News and a former president whose catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic helped get us into this fix. As the special session continues and the pandemic fight goes on, we’ll see the kind of leader Abbott really is.


Wyndi Veigel is the editor of The Marshall News Messenger and a 2007 graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce. She has been a reporter, photographer, page designer and social media expert for several publications.