The Texas Medical Association is encouraging Texans to socially distance, stay home when possible and wear masks to slow the spread of coronavirus. But despite the potential mixed message it may send, the state’s largest medical organization said Monday it is not reconsidering its sponsorship of the Texas Republican convention next month, where 6,000 people from across the state are expected to gather indoors without a mask mandate in Houston — one of the nation’s fastest growing COVID-19 hot spots.
A spokesperson for TMA, which represents more than 53,000 Texas physicians and medical students, told The Texas Tribune that it will honor its commitment to the event.
“The agreement will not be revisited,” Brent Annear, a TMA spokesperson, said in an email Monday.
He added that despite the fact that the GOP organizers won’t require masks of attendees, TMA “encourages everyone who goes anywhere to wear masks.”
“To our Republican friends – and our Democrat friends (and independents and those of other parties) – we say wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distant if you must be in groups, and stay home if you can,” Annear said.
TMA is one of more than 30 sponsors of the Republican Party convention, according to a list of sponsors on the party’s website that was taken down Monday afternoon. Other sponsors of the convention include Comcast, Verizon, Union Pacific and various Republican officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Comptroller Glenn Hegar. At the Republican Party convention, delegates will decide on the party’s leadership, platform, and priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
As the coronavirus surges across the country, Harris County – where Houston is located – has the highest number of cases and deaths in Texas. The timing of the in-person convention and resistance to imposing a mask requirement have raised concerns among public health experts.
“I think it's not the right time to be hosting large events indoors, especially when there's no plan for masking and adequate space for social distancing,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School.
Dr. David Lakey, the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said it’s “important for the Texas Medical Association to be involved in both political parties in order to have the voice of health and the many public health issues such as vaccines and Medicaid and maternal morbidity, to make sure that both parties understand that these issues are important.”
“If [TMA] totally dropped sponsorship, they lose the ability to address the multitude of health issues that we have here,” Lakey said
But Lakey, who is a current member of TMA and past chair of its public health committee, also said he hopes TMA will encourage the convention to “consider the use of masks and other public health interventions if they are going to move forward.”
Annear said TMA’s agreement with the Republican Party of Texas was set in stone “before the pandemic was a major issue here – before we hit any stay-home suggestions or mandates, mask policies or anything like that.”
And because the group signed onto the sponsorship before the pandemic began, and “no conditions like that were discussed,” it will not back out of the agreement.
“This low-rung sponsorship entitles TMA to have a brief video play for the conventiongoers that reminds them that Texas physicians are here to care for Texas patients,” Annear said. “We paid the same low-level sponsor amount to the Democrats for their convention, and we had a video play during their virtual convention with essentially the same message.”
Dana Fite, the president of the Texas Medical Association, wrote in an online letter to Texas physicians to encourage patients, friends, and family members to “for your sake, for your neighbors’ sake, for my sake, and for your grandma’s sake, wear a mask, Texas.”
Earlier this spring, TMA canceled its own annual conference, TexMed 2020, which was scheduled to take place from May 1-2 in Fort Worth, and suspended the 2020 TMA House of Delegates meeting both in-person and online “until the crisis has subsided.”
“The health and safety of our members is paramount as you are on the front lines of the fight to control the spread of the virus and treat infected patients,” TMA’s website says of its decision to cancel TexMed 2020.
Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, says TMA’s sponsorship of the Republican party convention “doesn’t change how dangerous it is.”
“The expanded coronavirus cases are hurting the people of Texas, and this convention doesn't change anything,” he said. “It’s still going to be very dangerous, and it's still absolutely ridiculous that they’re holding it.”
The Republican Party of Texas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Disclosure: Texas Medical Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.