Shawn Mulcahy

Texas GOP state senator urged use of unproven hydroxychloroquine for COVID. Now he's spreading doubt about vaccines

"Texas GOP state senator urged use of unproven hydroxychloroquine treatment for COVID-19. Now he's spreading doubt about vaccines." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

State Sen. Bob Hall is not a doctor.

The Edgewood Republican graduated from The Citadel with a degree in electrical engineering and, after a successful career in the U.S. Air Force, started an aerospace and defense consulting business.

But a lack of medical training hasn't stopped Hall from promoting misleading — and at times outright false — information about the coronavirus pandemic. Early in the pandemic, he advocated for treating COVID-19 patients with a drug used to treat malaria, even though there was little evidence it worked. Now, he's promoting skepticism about the coronavirus vaccines, despite widespread scientific consensus that they greatly reduce the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

Earlier this month, a Texas Senate committee considered a proposal from Hall that would ban any entity — public or private — from requiring their employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine and would prohibit “discrimination" based on a person's vaccination status.

“The mere fact that a person has not received a specific vaccine does not make them a threat to others' health and safety," he said. “In contrast, vaccines they have elected not to have may very well be a threat to their own health and safety."

Overwhelming evidence suggests the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. The federal government sets strict safety standards for vaccines and each of the three authorized versions have been tested on tens of thousands of people. In clinical trials, the Pfizer vaccine proved 95% effective against the virus and was near perfect at preventing serious illness or death. Mild side effects from the shot are common, but severe adverse reactions are extremely rare, studies show.

Hall framed his measure as a protection of personal liberties. Businesses, he argued, should not have the power to force employees to undergo an “irreversible medical procedure." But in a period of sagging vaccination rates — particularly among staunch conservatives like Hall — the senator and his invited guests used their platform to promulgate debunked anti-vaccine conspiracies and push claims that have largely been eschewed by the medical community.

Hall is among the most conservative members of a Texas Senate known for its willingness to embrace right-wing issues. His wing of the party has proven a particular challenge for public health leaders pushing to get people in the state vaccinated.

Only about a third of Texans are fully vaccinated. Despite ample supply, the vaccination rate in recent weeks has continued to slip. And medical experts now predict that it's unlikely the U.S. will reach herd immunity, in large part due to enduring hesitancy to take the vaccine. An April poll by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 36% of Texans said they were either reluctant to receive the vaccine or would refuse to get it — including almost half of the state's Republicans.

The core argument from Hall and other vaccine skeptics is that the COVID-19 shot is a hastily developed, “experimental" treatment. Three vaccine makers — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have been authorized to administer their vaccines in the U.S. To expedite the delivery to vulnerable people and slow the spread of infection, the drugs were approved through a process known as emergency use authorization. The manufacturers were still required to undergo many stages of research and testing before they could be put to use and will have to apply for full approval after the pandemic ends.

It's true that the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are the first to employ messenger RNA, or mRNA, for human use. The vaccines trick the body into producing a harmless piece of the COVID-19 virus, which generates an immune response. But the technology has been under development for more than three decades.

It was one in a series of dubious medical claims raised during the hearing. One doctor testified that immunity from the injection is less powerful than “natural immunity" granted from God, while Hall characterized one person who spoke during public testimony as “almost a vegetable as a result of the vaccine."

“Personally, I've received numerous reports from family members of my patients, close friends to my patients, that within hours to two days of receiving the vaccine, they've suffered from stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, blood clots, sudden death," said Dr. Ben Edwards, a Texas doctor who practices integrative medicine and runs a dietary supplement subscription company, at the hearing.

Hall's office did not respond to requests for comment or to a list of emailed questions.

Edwards, Hall and others appearing before the committee cited what appeared to be a startling statistic: More than 4,000 people across the nation have died after receiving the injection. It's a real number that comes from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a federal database run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

But unlike most government data, which undergoes strict quality checks before it's released to the public, anyone can self-report adverse health effects to VAERS and the information is not verified before it appears in the database. The federal government warns users that reports alone cannot be used to determine whether a vaccine caused or contributed to health complications or death. More than 150 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine. With such widespread use, it's expected that some would die for unrelated reasons after taking the vaccine. Four thousand deaths would represent less than 0.00003% of people who have received at least one dose.

Nonetheless, prominent personalities such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, have joined anti-vaccine groups in recent weeks in using the government data to raise unfounded concerns about the shots.

Hall also pressed witnesses on another debunked claim: Manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna skipped animal trials because the animals died after receiving the vaccine. The FDA required drug makers to test their products on animals and both Pfizer and Moderna publicly announced their results, though they received approval to simultaneously conduct animal trials and the first phase of human trials.

“I think that's important to understand there that what we're talking about is the American people are now the guinea pigs," Hall falsely said. “This is the test program that's going on."

Yet while Hall calls a vaccine that's been authorized by federal health authorities experimental, he previously promoted a controversial treatment even after its use was suspended because it offered no significant benefits and could lead to serious health complications.

In August, Hall organized a town hall to combat “misinformation" about the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, an unproven COVID-19 treatment touted by former President Donald Trump. The drug was authorized in April 2020 for use under the same emergency procedure as the COVID-19 vaccines. But the FDA in July 2020 yanked its authorization after a large clinical trial found hydroxychloroquine had “no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery" and could lead to dangerous health complications, such as heart problems, blood disorders and kidney failure.

Among the medical personnel invited by Hall were a dentist from Tyler and Stella Immanuel, a Cameroonian doctor who rose to popularity after Trump shared a video in which she praised the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and questioned the efficacy of masks. Immanuel has also alleged that alien DNA is used in medical treatments and that certain gynecological problems are caused by people having sex in their dreams with witches and aliens.

The government's job “is to protect the liberty and lives of people," Hall said at the time.

“We are trampling their liberties and we are not protecting their lives, because had we [have] been using hydroxychloroquine and some of the other drugs available … like we were in the beginning, we would not have the deaths in Texas that we have," he added, without evidence.

Disclosure: Effectiv and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/17/texas-bob-hall-covid-19-vaccine/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas' Greg Abbott has been quietly courting Facebook while publicly shaming them — here's why

"Gov. Greg Abbott publicly slammed Facebook. Privately, he's courting the social media giant to build a second data center in Texas." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott blasted the actions of Facebook as “un-American [and] un-Texan," accusing it and other social media giants of spearheading a “dangerous movement to silence conservative voices."

“The First Amendment is under assault by these social media companies, and that will not be tolerated in Texas," Abbott said.

At the same time, his office was working quietly with the company with the hope that it will soon build a second data center in the state, according to documents provided to The Texas Tribune by the Tech Transparency Project, a technology research arm of the nonprofit watchdog group Campaign for Accountability.

That contrast in public and private messaging highlights the dissonance with which some Texas GOP leaders approach the tech industry. Abbott and other state officials have engaged in a coordinated line of attack against the companies, publicly lambasting them and pushing for laws to address what they perceive as liberal biases. At the same time, state leaders have privately courted them and publicly bragged about the thousands of jobs they have created here.

Broad details of the behind-the-scenes courting of Facebook are included in a letter from a lawyer representing the company.

Earlier this year, the Tech Transparency Project filed an open records request that sought communications between Abbott's office and employees of certain technology companies, including Facebook. Instead of releasing the records, Abbott's office asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to intervene on Facebook's behalf, according to a letter obtained through a records request from the attorney general's office.

The letter, by Justin Hoover, an attorney at the law firm Winstead PC who is representing Facebook, argued that the release of more than 100 pages of communications between the social media company and the governor's office would expose confidential information including:

  • The fact that Facebook is considering Texas as a site for its data center
  • The project codename for the data center
  • The name of the subsidiary that will purchase land for the data center
  • The names of Facebook employees working on the project
  • The nondisclosure agreement between Abbott's office and Facebook

Spokespeople for Abbott and Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Reference

Read the letter sent by a lawyer for Facebook to the Texas Attorney General's office here.
(703.1 KB)

The letter states that Texas is “one of several states being considered" by Facebook for the data center and that the company has been “engaged in preliminary discussions" with Abbott's Economic Development and Tourism office about “possible site locations and related economic incentives." Discussions with Texas officials began in August, the letter said, and it will likely be at least a year before the company selects a site.

Hoover wrote that withholding the information is “paramount to the ability of the State of Texas to remain in consideration" for the data center.

Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, said in a statement that it's "entirely likely" that an agreement between Texas and Facebook would "end up being a raw deal for Texas taxpayers."

"A similar data center in Tennessee granted Facebook $19.5 million in tax incentives for a project that would only create 100 new jobs," Paul said. "If Facebook throws its weight around in Texas in the same way it did in Tennessee, it's no wonder that both the company and the governor's office are trying to keep their negotiations under wraps."

If a deal were inked, it would be Facebook's second data center in Texas. Construction on a $1.5 billion Fort Worth location began in 2015 and is expected to be completed in 2022. The facility employs about 150 people.

The city of Fort Worth at the time approved a lucrative incentive package for Facebook, which included a 20-year, $147 million tax-exemption deal on real and business personal property taxes, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The company committed to creating at least 40 jobs with average annual salaries of $70,000.

Abbott attended the facility's groundbreaking in 2015, touting his efforts to bring Facebook to Texas and declaring that the facility would create an “even more robust and diverse economy."

“Make no mistake, this project does far more than just create jobs and add capital to the region," Abbott said. “It is a magnet that high-tech companies are welcome to the state."

Abbott has long boasted that the “Silicon Hills" of Texas are a low-tax, business friendly alternative to the expensive tech-mecca of Silicon Valley in California, while also bashing Austin as a bastion of liberalism for policies such as diverting police funds to other community services.

Texas has won over major corporations. Software giant Oracle announced in December that it was moving its headquarters from California to Austin. Other tech companies with offices in the Austin area include Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Dell and Intel. Even Elon Musk, the CEO of electric car company Tesla, recently announced a high-profile exit from the Golden State for Texas.

Meanwhile, Paxton is ensnared in litigation with a number of technology companies. In December, Paxton joined 47 attorneys general and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook. The suit accused the organization of monopolizing the market for social networking services. Paxton is also leading a separate, multi-state lawsuit against Google, alleging the search giant conspired with Facebook to manipulate online advertisement sales.

And in January, after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for inciting violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Paxton announced an investigation into Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Web Services and Apple. He is seeking information about the companies' content moderation policies and practices. Paxton also requested information related to Parler, a social networking site used by the far right. Google and Apple booted the app from their app stores, and Amazon Web Services said it would no longer provide web hosting services.

Paxton's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The revelation that Abbott is courting Facebook comes as the Texas Legislature is pushing a proposal to punish social media companies for “canceling conservative speech." State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is championing Senate Bill 12 — a legislative priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that would prohibit social media companies with at least 100 million monthly users from blocking, banning, demonetizing or discriminating against a user based on their viewpoint or their location within Texas. The state Senate approved the proposal last week by an 18-13 vote, but it has not had a hearing in the Texas House.

The measure would apply to anyone who lives in, does business in or even has social media followers in Texas. It would also require the companies to disclose their content moderation policies, publish quarterly reports about the content they remove and create an appeals process for user content that has been taken down.

The Texas attorney general would be allowed to file suit against any company that violates a provision of the bill. If upheld in court, the attorney general could recoup "reasonable" attorneys fees and investigative costs.

Spokespeople for Hughes and Patrick did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.

Abbott joined Hughes at a news conference last month in Tyler to throw his support behind the measure, and singled out Facebook by name.

“What Facebook and Twitter are doing: they are controlling the flow of information — and sometimes denying the flow of information," Abbott said at the time. “Texas is taking a stand against Big Tech political censorship. We're not going to allow it in the Lone Star State."

Disclosure: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Apple, Dell, Facebook and Google have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/05/texas-greg-abbott-facebook/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

At least 111 people died in Texas during winter storm — most from hypothermia

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month's winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department estimated last week and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas' larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire."

Among those who lost their lives in the frigid weather was an 11-year-old boy in the Houston area who died in his home as temperatures dropped into the single digits. In San Antonio, a man froze to death outside his house after he likely fell on his way to a dialysis appointment. And in Abilene, a man reportedly froze to death in his reclining chair.

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

February's winter storm blanketed large swaths of Texas in snow and ice and left millions without power or clean water for days in below-freezing temperatures.

The issues laid bare by the freeze have taken center stage at the Texas Legislature. A Texas Senate committee advanced a wide-ranging bill Thursday that would, among other things, mandate that power and natural gas companies upgrade their facilities to withstand severe weather. It would also create a statewide emergency alert system for future large-scale power outages.

Meanwhile, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been lobbying Texas lawmakers to support an $8 billion plan to build 10 new natural gas power plants that would provide energy during peak consumption hours when demand is highest. The company wants lawmakers to create a revenue stream to Berkshire through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/texas-deaths-winter-storm/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.