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Five Years Ago A Lawmaker Tried — And Failed — To Prepare Texas For A Pandemic. What Happened?

Workers at a free testing site in San Antonio wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Some hospitals and health departments have experienced shortages of PPE.
Workers at a free testing site in San Antonio wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Some hospitals and health departments have experienced shortages of PPE.

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak in Texas, healthcare workers have expressed concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). Local governments have scrambled to put together contact tracing teams. Five years ago, one state senator tried to plan for a situation like the pandemic happening now.

Republican state senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown proposed Senate Bill 538 in 2015. He spoke to the public at a press conference a few months after Thomas Eric Duncan became the first known person to develop Ebola in the United States. He was diagnosed in Dallas on September 30, 2014.  

“In the ensuing days and weeks, Texans from every walk of life expressed understandable fear and confusion regarding the ability of their government to appropriately respond to an infectious disease of such a serious nature,” Shwertner said. 

He and Dr. Brett Giroir, the former director of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response and a current national assistant secretary for public health, outlined the proposal for Senate Bill 538.

The bill did a few things: the governor could declare an infectious disease emergency, which would expand powers to public health officials to quarantine individuals who may have been exposed. 

And the kicker: 

“The creation of a stockpile of personal protective equipment — that is the gear one wears to protect against infectivity. And to evaluate numerous options for new technology relating to tracking of exposed contacts,” Giroir explained.  

A PPE stockpile and effective, widespread contact tracing would be very useful right about now.

“Yeah, it was — it's unfortunate that the bill did not get through, and there were a number of reasons why it didn't,” Schwertner told TPR. 

The state senator is also a doctor, so he understands the importance of PPE. A state-managed stockpile could have prevented the statewide shortages seen in recent months. But back then, some lawmakers had other priorities. 

“And putting, in this case, $5 million into stockpiling personal protective equipment in the concern of a future undetermined event is not high on the list of a lot of people,” he said. 

One other issue popped up back then that may sound familiar now.

“Some individuals were concerned about enforceable control orders — or orders to quarantine — and their personal freedoms and liberties being undermined by a state of infectious disease emergency being declared, and that individual being told they cannot do X, Y or Z,” he said. 

Some people now say orders to wear masks or avoid large gatherings are a violation of their constitutional rights. And others, like Republican State Senator Bob Hall have argued that COVID-19 contact tracing — a core tool of public health and epidemiology — is “technically wrong, financially wrong and morally wrong.”

But back in 2015, Schwertner wasn’t deterred by similar arguments. 

“When you have a communicable, deadly infectious disease, you have to weigh the benefits of the many versus the freedoms of the few,” he said. “And so it's kind of like in wartime — you sacrifice from a personal standpoint for the betterment of all.”

He said he wishes his bill didn’t die in 2015. Now, in 2020, he mostly supports the decision to re-open the economy with the information that was available. But he does wish vulnerable groups received more protections.

“You're in a political no-win situation,” he said. “You either shut down the economy — tell anyone ‘stay home, social distance’ — or, you know, you're seen as the Grim Reaper.”

He said he plans to re-introduce a version of SB 538 in the upcoming legislative session. 

“But it’s a hard thing to do because these things come and go, all public health disasters tend to,” he said. “And so the awareness and understanding of what happened, you know, in the Spanish Flu — it gets lost in the mind over time.” 

The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has become deeply polarizing. But, by the 2021 legislative session, the general election will have passed, and state lawmakers might be able to move past partisan divides, put aside political positioning and instead focus on the proper path ahead. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.