Fort Bend County looks to try to get more information out about the COVID-19 vaccine, while Republicans in the Texas Legislature look to protect the rights of those who don’t want to take the vaccine.
A pair of Republican state legislators is filing a bill in their special session to prevent the county – as well as other counties in Texas – from giving out personal medical information to third party vendors.
State Representative Jacey Jetton (R-Richmond) and State Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) have filed legislation to prevent county health authorities from sharing personal vaccine or immunization information with third parties.
“Texans expect and deserve privacy with their medical records,” said Jetton, who serves on the House Public Health Committee. “My constituents want peace of mind, knowing their elected officials and government agencies will not share their medical information with any group outside of their healthcare provider. I filed HB 273 to ensure governments protect sensitive medical documents.”
Kolkhorst told The Herald that she was disappointed that County Judge KP George and the two Democratic county commissioners voted to hire a partisan political organization to conduct the outreach program, feeling that local non-profit organizations could have done the same job.
“There’s a fine line between public health outreach and government coercion,” she said. “This raises a real legal question here at the state level.”
Kolkhorst and Jetton filed the bill one day after the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court narrowly approved an agreement with Next Wave Strategies of Houston to do an outreach campaign to get information out about the COVID-19 vaccine to those who live in the less vaccinated areas of the county, mostly in Missouri City, Stafford and the small parts of Houston that are in the county.
The county will give Next Wave, which has done community outreach efforts for the vaccine for the city of Houston, $345,000 to do the outreach, which comes from a grant from FEMA.
The agreement states that Next Wave will “provide community vaccine outreach services by developing a health marketing communication plan that utilizes social marketing principles and grassroots strategies to dispel myths and misperceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine and elicit behavioral change in vaccine-hesitant residents in Fort Bend County.”
But the agreement does not mention that Next Wave will have access to personal medical information. It does state that confidential information that the county provides the firm must stay confidential.
A spokesperson for Judge George said that the controversy over the outreach program is “unfortunate” and that there is no partisan politics involved.
“The goal is to reach out to the people who live in east Fort Bend County, who are economically disadvantaged and are people of color,” George’s communications director Tami Wallace said. “We want to help everyone (to go get the vaccine), whether it’s through a for-profit (organization) or a non-profit.”
Texas Law currently allows county health authorities to disclose vaccine and immunization records to healthcare professionals or any third party with whom they are contracted, even if a third party is not the person’s healthcare provider. But the two proposed bills, HB 273 and SB 74, will require county health authorities to keep vaccine and immunization records away from third-party for-profit groups.
The proposed bill SB 74 could be passed in the Texas Senate during this special session, but unless Texas Democrats return from Washington D.C., where they have fled to prevent the passing of a proposed voting bill, SB 74 will die in the Texas House and will not become law.
However, the bills could be refiled and voted on in another special session, if Gov. Greg Abbott calls for one.
Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said he voted against the program because he felt Next Wave – which has done campaign and fundraising work for several Democratic candidates and organizations – would use the information gathered from the vaccine outreach program to help gain data that could be use by the firm to help future Democratic candidates.
But a provision set by FEMA states that no firms could conduct any political activity while working on vaccine outreach, or risk returning the funds to the county or the Treasury Department.
Shekira Dennis, the managing director and co-founder of Next Wave, told The Herald that most of their interaction with citizens in their vaccine outreach program in Houston is “contactless.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said.