DALLAS -- More than 200 health care workers and others gathered outside Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas on Saturday to protest the requirement by a growing number of hospital systems that employees get covid-19 vaccination shots.
Baylor Scott & White, Methodist Health System and Texas Health Resources all announced vaccine mandates for employees in late July. Children's Health in Dallas and Cook Children's in Fort Worth followed suit this week.
Dozens of the demonstrators Saturday were health care workers in their medical scrubs. Some said mandatory shots will only add to the enormous stress that medical professionals have been under during the pandemic.
Protesters lined up along both sides of CBD-Fair Park Link, near the intersection with Junius Street, holding signs that read "Stop the Mandate" and messages about freedom and choice.
Multiple motorists honked in support and waved to demonstrators as they drove by. At one point, a Dallas Fire-Rescue truck blew its horns, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Shane Lall and his partner, Blake Randolph, attended in Baylor Scott & White scrubs.
Lall, who said he has a medical condition that prevents him from getting the shot, said he thinks more research is needed on the long-term effects of the vaccine.
"Basically, we stand for body autonomy," he said. "I'm for everyone being able to make a decision when it comes to their body and what they want to put in it."
Randolph said that medical workers have been overworked throughout the pandemic and that requiring vaccinations will add even more stress.
"In the long run, I think who it's really going to affect is the patients," Randolph said. "Every time somebody quits or is let go because they can't get a vaccine, our workforce diminishes even more. We're already overworked as it is and are understaffed every single day."
The recent mandates have come in the wake of what health officials in Dallas County have called a "frightening trajectory" of cases because of spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus. The variant has become the main strain circulating in the U.S., experts say, and most people who become hospitalized with it are unvaccinated.
Experts and local officials have been urging the unvaccinated to get the shots. In Texas, slightly more than 53% of people over age 12 are fully vaccinated.
An executive order Gov. Greg Abbott issued in May prevents counties, cities, public health authorities and local government officials from requiring people to wear masks, and warns that violators could be fined $1,000.
GOP State Sen. Bob Hall, who during the legislative session filed a bill that would have barred government and state agencies from setting vaccine mandates, also attended Saturday.
"I think it's a matter of individual liberty and personal freedom," said Hall, who said he has not been vaccinated. "Individual liberty trumps business rights. So, I think it's up to the individual to make that decision."
Hall's bill died in committee, but Abbott signed on July 29 a more far-reaching executive order barring mask and vaccination mandates, and prohibiting public agencies and any private entities that take public funds, including grants and loans, from requiring proof of vaccination.
Asked Friday for comment about the protest, Abbott's press secretary, Renae Eze, released this statement:
"Governor Abbott has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates. Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated.
"Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine," the statement read. "The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas."
SWAMPED BY DELTA
Authorities in Austin, Texas, warned the public Saturday that the city's covid-19 situation had grown desperate, as a surge in cases driven by the delta variant swamped hospitals while city officials were prevented from issuing mandates for masks and vaccinations by order of the state's governor.
In an alert sent Saturday via text, phone call, email, social media and other channels to people in the area, city officials said, "The COVID-19 situation in Austin is dire. Health care facilities are open but resources are limited due to a surge in cases."
Bryce Bencivengo, a spokesperson for the city's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that Friday had been one of the worst days for Austin's hospitals since the pandemic started. More than 100 new covid patients were admitted that day, he said, and intensive care units were near capacity, with covid patients occupying more than 180 ICU beds and 102 of those patients on ventilators.
"We are in the single digits of ICU beds available," Bencivengo said, adding that patients in emergency rooms were being forced to wait for space in the ICUs to open up.
Austin's mayor, Steve Adler, said in an interview Saturday that the The crisis could have been avoided if Abbott had not barred local government officials from issuing mandates on masking. He said the city's authorities wanted to avoid suing Abbott, but that "ultimately we're going to need to do what is necessary to fight for the safety of our community."
"Our hospitals are just beyond strained," he said.
Alison Alter, a City Council member, was more blunt.
"The governor is preventing the city from keeping kids and adults safe," she said in an interview. "He's going to have a lot of deaths on his hands here. This is a matter of life and death for our community."
In a statement Friday, three Austin-area hospitals said the vast majority of the covid patients they were admitting were unvaccinated or partly vaccinated.
"We urge the community to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones -- and to lessen the burden on our frontline workers who have been fighting this virus for the last year and a half," said the statement, issued by Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare.
The hospitalizations in Austin are at the tip of a surge in the area, hitting heights last seen before vaccinations became widely available, according to a New York Times database.
Travis County, where Austin is, reported more than 3,400 active coronavirus cases Friday, including 467 new infections. Its daily average of new cases rose 189% over the last two weeks.
Scores of the state's counties have reported caseloads that have more than doubled over two weeks, and some are seeing even larger surges than Austin. Bexar County, where San Antonio is, has seen its daily average shoot up more than 300%, to nearly 1,500 cases.
With 76% of the state's most vulnerable population -- those over 65 -- fully vaccinated, deaths have risen far more slowly. But some of the counties seeing huge surges lag behind the state's overall vaccination average of 44%. Some counties fall below 30%.
Information for this article was contributed by Catherine Marfin, Hojun Choi and Michael Williams of The Dallas Morning News (TNS) and by Alyssa Lukpat of The New York Times.