AUSTIN, Texas — The 87th Texas Legislative Session is set to begin on Jan. 12, amid one of the biggest spikes in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.
In his weekly media briefing on local case data on Wednesday, Dr. Mark Escott with Austin Public Health was asked if he was concerned the recent spike could spill over into the Texas Legislature and if he thought all representatives should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
"Before Christmas, I made the recommendation publicly that our state legislators and their key staff be vaccinated, preferably in their home jurisdiction before they come to Austin," Dr. Escott said. "But I do think we need to vaccinate those individuals because we do have a large event, and we have not had an event of this size since the pandemic began in Austin, and we do have to recognize that the number of people, the duration of the contact, and the nature of the contact, is going to lead to increased risk of transmission."
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a list of COVID-19 protocols for the state Senate on Jan. 4. Those include:
- Guest seating for the opening day ceremony will be allocated by each of the 31 senators. Lt. Gov. Patrick and the senators have decided to limit floor seating to one family member at each senator's desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor. In year's past, the Senate floor was fully available to use by family and other guests.
- Each senator will be given three tickets for seats in the Senate Gallery for their family and/or constituents. Limiting each senator to three tickets will keep the Senate Gallery floor seating to fewer than 100 guests and will therefore allow proper distancing.
- Senators have agreed to be tested for COVID-19 when entering the Capitol. Staff members will also be tested.
- Opening day guests of senators will also be tested for COVID-19 prior to entering.
- On opening day, all Senate guests must enter through the Capitol's east entrance, where the testing will be done.
- The ceremony for opening day will be shorter than usual to reduce time spent gathering.
- Most Senate offices will be open by appointment only on opening day and throughout the legislative session.
"Both houses are doing a great job of creating protections, but the best protection that we’re going to have is adding another layer of defense, and that’s vaccines," said Dr. Escott on Wednesday. "Each community from around the state has elected these individuals to represent them for a limited amount of time every other year. And I think for the purpose of continuity of government, it’s important that those individuals are vaccinated to help prevent spread within the legislative session, but also to mitigate the risk of spread to our Austin and Travis County community. So my hope is that the State will provide vaccines for those legislators and key staff for those purposes."
Dr. Janet Pichette, chief epidemiologist with Austin Public Health, agreed with Dr. Escott's suggestion.
"I’ll just add that it is a large, congregate setting, which has the very high potential for disease transmission risk to occur," she said. "In the absence of vaccine, it’s going to be important for those legislators and all the public that will interact in the process of the legislative session to be sure that they are following those prevention measures to reduce additional disease transmission risks."
Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt received their vaccines on live TV on Dec. 22.
KVUE has reached out to the governor's office for a statement on if the State has plans to issue vaccines to legislators. This story will be updated if received.
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