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Full FDA approval of Pfizer vaccine opens door for vaccine mandates in Texas

A nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic organized by the Travis County Mobile Vaccine Collaborative at Rodriguez Elementary School on July 28, 2021.
A nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic organized by the Travis County Mobile Vaccine Collaborative at Rodriguez Elementary School on July 28, 2021.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine Monday is cracking open the door for Texas cities, counties and school districts to compel their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — moves previously blocked by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott had banned public schools and local governments from enacting their own vaccine mandates. But the governor’s executive order specifies that the ban on mandates applies to COVID-19 vaccines that are under emergency authorization — a designation that no longer applies to the Pfizer two-dose vaccination.

Already, one major school district is pressing forward with its plan to require vaccinations for teachers and staff.

Pedro Martinez, superintendent for the San Antonio Independent School District, called for mandatory employee vaccinations last week — drawing a lawsuit from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who accused the district and Martinez of breaching Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates.

But with the FDA’s full approval, San Antonio school officials are moving forward with their vaccine requirement for district employees.

In a statement, Martinez called the FDA approval “a positive step forward in the fight against COVID-19 nationwide and a step forward in helping keep schools safe for learning here at home.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The vaccine currently has full approval only for people 16 or older, so Abbott's ban on mandates still applies for most public school students. The FDA's move did lead to a quick call for action at the university level. On Monday, the Texas State Employees Union announced that it was teaming up with student groups to host a rally at the University of Texas at Austin to call for vaccine requirements for all students, faculty and staff who come to campus for class and work. UT-Austin officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One college, the University of Texas at Arlington, said Monday afternoon that it had not evaluated the idea of a mandate "as this was only recently announced."

"Therefore, it would be premature to say that we are or are not considering them," said university spokesperson Joe Carpenter. "Our focus remains on testing all students and employees at the start of the fall semester, promoting the benefits of vaccines and making them readily available to the campus."

Other city and county officials in Texas’ major urban areas have been similarly silent about mandating vaccinations for their workers.

In San Antonio, city manager Erik Walsh said in a text message he has no plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for the city’s 12,000 municipal employees — and will instead rely on cash incentives to convince workers to get their shot.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday he plans to wait to see how many of the county's 5,000 employees take advantage of a vaccine incentive program before figuring out whether the county can compel its workers to get the vaccine.

“It’s easy to say that but it's much harder to have it in place,” Wolff said.

Some kinds of vaccine mandates are still off the table despite the FDA giving Pfizer the green light.

The state’s ban on so-called vaccine passports — authored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, and passed by Texas lawmakers earlier this year — prevents businesses like restaurants and retailers from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination.

So far, local governments have sought to entice their residents to seek the vaccine rather than force them. Officials in Houston and Austin have promised cash rewards — in the form of gift cards — to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Local government officials signaled they see the FDA approval as a tool to convince people who so far have hesitated to get vaccinated to now seek the shot.

Pfizer was initially given emergency approval last year after demonstrating it was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. The emergency authorization designations allow for vaccine doses to be distributed during public health emergencies, based on the best available evidence.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines also received emergency authorization and are awaiting full approval.

“If that's what you were waiting for, your wait is officially over,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo echoed that sentiment.

“If you've been on the fence, now is the time to get vaccinated with confidence,” Hidalgo’s office wrote in a tweet.

Abbott is not the only Texas Republican leader who has staked his opposition to vaccine mandates on emergency authorization.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has introduced legislation — dubbed the No Vaccine Mandates Act — that would make it illegal to “to require someone to receive any COVID-19 vaccine originally approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) without first obtaining the patient's informed consent.”

Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday morning.

The FDA’s clearance of the vaccine is for people 16 years and older. The Pfizer shot was also authorized for children as young as 12 years old earlier this summer, and Pfizer is still seeking full approval for that group.

Kate McGee contributed reporting.

Disclosure: University of Texas - Arlington and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

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