AUSTIN, Texas – The state's top health official said Wednesday he did not speak with Greg Abbott before the governor announced Tuesday he would end his mask order and "open Texas 100%," a decision criticized by public health experts, city and county leaders and President Joe Biden.
"Did the governor consult with you about the decision to lift the mask mandate?" state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, asked Dr. John Hellerstedt, who appeared before the House Public Health Committee by remote video.
"We have daily decisions with the governor's staff about what we see in terms of trends," Hellerstedt replied.
Pressed by Zwiener, Hellerstedt told state lawmakers he "did not have a personal conversation" with Abbott before the governor's announcement.
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Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, the lead agency monitoring the spread of COVID-19 statewide and vaccine distribution, is one of four medical advisers on the governor's Strike Force to Open Texas. James Huffines headed the strike force, which was assembled last year and ended its work in October.
Two of the other medical advisers also said they were not consulted before the governor's decision.
"Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others," one of the advisers, Dr. Mark McClellan, a Duke University professor of business, medicine and policy, told the Austin American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Another adviser, Dr. Parker Hudson, a Dell Medical School assistant professor for infectious diseases, told the American-Statesman, "I was not involved in this decision.”
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The fourth medical adviser, Dr. John Zerwas, said he did speak with Abbott before his announcement.
"My recommendation to him was that in the same breath you declare an end to the state mandate, there needs to be a very clear message that public health measures continue to be very important as we work our way through the pandemic," said Zerwas, executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas system and a former state legislator from the Houston area.
“He said those things, but they do get lost when you have probably the bigger headline, ‘Governor rescinding state mandate,’” Zerwas said.
Zerwas, an anesthesiologist, said the mandate served its purpose, as a backstop when Texans weren't fully complying with public health recommendations as cases spiked in the early summer.
"It's time for personal responsibility to take the primary role," he said. "The state mandate is in the rearview mirror" as most Texans are well-versed in ways they can prevent spread of the disease.
Asked about the timing of the lifting of the mask mandates amid spreading coronavirus variants that are raising alarm bells, Zerwas said, "I still think it's fine" since they "may be more virulent but don't make you more sick."
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Whom did Abbott consult?
Abbott's executive order, which will take effect Wednesday, rescinds most of his earlier orders, including restrictions on business occupancy.
"Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID," Abbott said Tuesday.
"It is clear from the recoveries, from the vaccinations, from the reduced hospitalizations and from the safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed," he said.
But, he added, "removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility."
"Personal vigilance to follow safe standards is still needed to contain COVID – it’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed," he said.
Abbott did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
Asked which medical advisers Abbott consulted in making his decision, his spokeswoman Renae Eze said, “The governor speaks regularly with Dr. Hellerstedt and Dr. Zerwas, along with others in the medical community, regarding yesterday’s announcement. All were in agreement that Texans should continue following medical advice and safe standards on preventing COVID-19 to protect themselves and their loved ones, just like they do on other medical issues."
The Statesman filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for correspondence between the governor and other officials before his decision to lift the coronavirus restrictions.
Tuesday, Abbott cited declining hospitalizations across the state (a higher figure than the number of Texas COVID-19 patients when Abbott issued the mask mandate eight months ago) and rising vaccinations.
'Not the time to release all restrictions'
Federal medical experts cautioned against the move.
"I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions," U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.
She continued: "I will also note that every individual is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide. ... I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance and to do the right thing to protect their own heath."
Texas Medical Association President Diana Fite told the Statesman the governor did not consult with her.
"We would have said our recommendation is follow the science and follow the recommendations of the CDC," she said, referring to mask wearing, keeping social distance, getting vaccinated and washing hands frequently.
"We definitely appreciate that (the governor) did emphasize that (ending the mask mandate) does not end personal responsibility," she said. "We really can't make an opinion on whether a government mandate is absolutely necessary."
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During the state House health committee hearing, Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, interrupted a presentation on the importance of mask wearing.
“How does this comport with the governor's announcement yesterday concerning that issue and lifting requirements on many restaurants?” he asked.
“I can assure you the governor and I are on same page, as far as recommendations for what is helpful for preventing COVID-19,” Hellerstedt responded. “Folks are more aware than they were in earlier days of the pandemic that's it's a real threat, a contagious disease, that things, in fact, are effective against it. I know the governor took steps not to diminish the use of masks but to say government would play a different role.”
Abbott’s announcement is “very confusing for the public,” Guerra said. “The elected officials in South Texas are not happy with that announcement. They’re out and about saying we really need to be wearing the masks – and it seems to be contradictory to what the governor says.”
Follow reporter Asher Price on Twitter: @asherprice
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: 3 top Texas health officials not consulted before Abbott mask decision