Discrimination masquerading as public health in Texas

Discrimination masquerading as public health in Texas
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This week, Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottDozens of Republican governors call for meeting with Biden on border surge The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration O'Rourke prepping run for governor in Texas: report MORE (R) issued an executive order directing law enforcement officers to stop vehicles that contain any “migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19” and “reroute such vehicles back to its point of origin or a port of entry.” The rationale for this order is that unlawful border crossings have led to dramatic increases in Texas COVID-19 cases. While the legal challenges to this order are in the works, it is important to call out the lack of public health basis for this order, and how this type of discriminatory practice harms the fight against COVID-19.

The erroneous assumption put forth in this policy is that migrants coming to Texas are contributing to the current surge in COVID-19 cases. But the current surge is a national problem, and is driven by low rates of vaccination, the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant and the rollback of basic protective measures such as mask wearing.

Texas is no exception to these challenges, with only 43 percent of residents fully vaccinated and an executive order recently signed by Abbott that bans any city from mandating mask wearing. 

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An alarming fallacy in the Texas order is that forcing more contact between law enforcement officers and people who are riding in a car or bus is going to help find or prevent more cases. It’s hard to even imagine how such encounters would occur, other than law enforcement officers simply stopping people of color on the pretext that they may be unvaccinated or ill with COVID-19. And then what? Will their vaccination status be checked? Is there a vaccine passport they and others will need to show during such encounters? Will the law enforcement officer conduct some sort of temperature or symptom check or COVID-19 tests without consent? Will people be told to drive somewhere else? Will these law enforcement officers even be vaccinated?

My experience in the past 18 months of COVID-19 work is that law enforcement officers are among the most resistant to vaccination. So might this whole idea actually propel the spread of COVID-19 by mandating unnecessary contact?

This is not the first time COVID-19 has been used as a pretext for discrimination against immigrants. In my work assessing COVID-19 responses in immigration detention centers, I have often encountered the false logic that immigrants are somehow safer behind bars or, conversely, that they are the cause of COVID-19 being spread.

Despite a veneer of public health concern, Abbott’s executive order seems to be rooted in xenophobia and thus requires swift renunciation by public health organizations and leadership. The American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the Texas Medical Association would be a good start.

Public health officials in Texas know what works: promoting vaccination, encouraging social distancing and mask wearing and making health systems available to anyone who needs care. This includes making COVID-19 education, testing, care and especially vaccination available to all people in Texas, without checking immigration or insurance status. Recent efforts to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to farm workers in Texas have been hampered by fear of immigration officials detaining people who go to clinics. Those fears, and the ability of Texas to limit the spread of COVID-19, will get considerably worse if this order is implemented. A response to COVID-19 that enlists law enforcement does not promote the public health; it causes great harm.

Dr. Homer Venters is the former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system, a clinical associate professor at the New York University College of Global Public Health and a member of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. (The views expressed in this op-ed are those of Dr. Venters, and do not reflect the opinions of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.)