With time running out on the Texas legislative session, health experts urge lawmakers to prepare for the next pandemic

Photo does not have a caption

About a year ago, as a once-in-a-century public health crisis was unraveling across the world, it was abundantly clear how unprepared Texas was for the pandemic.

An aging data collection system within the Texas Department of State Health Services made it difficult for health officials to fully assess the impact of COVID-19, which the state's official numbers say has left nearly 50,000 people dead. Protective gear and COVID-19 tests were in short supply, leaving health care providers and governments scrambling to find supplies. Waves of infection would soon overwhelm entire hospital systems, while morgues across the state would run out of space to store the dead.

But now, with vaccines widely available and daily new case totals declining, preparing for the next pandemic is competing for space on the legislative priority list. Hot-button conservative issues — such as the permitless carrying of handguns, voting restrictions and measures targeting transgender children — and the state’s response to a deadly winter storm have taken up much of the oxygen in the Capitol this legislative session. And the legislative proposals related to the pandemic gaining the most attention from Republican leadership in both chambers are bills that would restrict the governor’s ability to impose restrictions in public health emergencies.

With fewer than 35 days left in the legislative session, public health experts are urging lawmakers to prioritize preparations for another infectious disease outbreak — the possibility of which health officials say is increasingly likely. Lawmakers this session have filed a flurry of proposals related to the pandemic, many of which are at varying stages of the legislative process. Some, experts say, constitute meaningful reform. Others, they warn, could leave the state worse off.

A “boom and bust cycle”

Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, said officials often prepare for infectious diseases in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak. But, as other issues take priority over time, attention to and funding for public health issues fades in what he called a “boom and bust cycle.”

“We're going to be faced with a future series of epidemics, outbreaks — whether they rise in the category of a pandemic, we can't predict,” Parker said. “But COVID has told us we need to take preparedness much more seriously than we have in the past as a nation.”

One area of particular concern for legislators is the power wielded by the governor during prolonged times of emergency. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott faced fierce criticism from officials within his party over unilateral decisions to temporarily shut down Texas businesses and to require face masks be worn in public spaces. Abbott also resisted calls from some lawmakers to convene a special session of the Legislature to consider pandemic-related proposals and to weigh how the state should spend billions in federal relief dollars.