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Abbott order banning vaccine mandates still being weighed by Waco health care providers

Gov. Greg Abbott’s new order against COVID-19 vaccine mandates comes almost two weeks after deadlines passed for Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest and Waco Family Medicine employees to be vaccinated, under policies announced in July and August.

Abbott issued an executive order Monday to prohibit any entity in the state from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on workers or customers, and he called on state lawmakers to pass a similar ban into law.

“No entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19,” Abbott wrote in his order.

Baylor Scott & White Health and Ascension, the systems that operate Waco’s main hospital-and-clinic groups, announced their vaccine requirements in July, and Waco Family Medicine, which operates a system of clinics serving lower-income and uninsured residents, announced its requirement in August. Vaccination deadlines passed a little more than a week ago for Baylor Scott & White and Waco Family Medicine, and Ascension’s deadline was set at Nov. 12, the same as its deadline for flu vaccination. All three entities allowed for exemptions in line with longstanding requirements for other vaccinations.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said as governor, Abbott has the authority to issue such a mandate. He said he does not have an opinion about whether the issue should be a subject for the Legislature’s special session.

“It seems that mandates really haven’t been working that well, and I think mandates may not have enough consideration for a lot of other factors, such as natural immunity and other personal decisions,” Felton said. “In my opinion, they have the right to make those decisions.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell and state Reps. Kyle Kacal and Charles “Doc” Anderson, who all represent the Waco area, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said 560 of Waco Family Medicine’s 583 employees are fully vaccinated. Some of the 23 not yet vaccinated are on leave for various reasons, and some have delayed their vaccination because they received monoclonal antibody infusions too recently, he said.

“Any of our staff who are not fully vaccinated are wearing N95 masks and receiving testing twice a week and following related protocols,” Griggs said.

In a brief statement, Baylor Scott & White spokesperson Megan Snipes said officials are still reviewing Abbott’s order, and about 98% of the system’s employees statewide have been fully vaccinated. The system includes 52 hospitals and more than 800 care sites, according to its website.

Ascension Providence did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In McLennan County, almost 53% of eligible residents, meaning age 12 and up, are fully vaccinated, compared to almost 63% statewide and more than 66% nationwide.

Abbott, who was previously vaccinated and also later tested positive for COVID-19, noted in his order that “vaccines are strongly encouraged for those eligible to receive one, but must always be voluntary for Texans.” In a tweet announcing the order, he said “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, & our best defense against the virus, but should always remain voluntary & never forced.”

The order comes as the Biden administration is set to issue rules requiring employers with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated or test weekly for the coronavirus. Several major companies, including Texas-based American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, have said they would abide by the federal mandate.

Other states

With Abbott leading the charge, conservative Republicans in several states are moving to block or undercut President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers before the regulations are even issued.

The growing battle over what some see as overreach by the federal government is firing up a segment of the Republican Party base, even though many large employers have already decided on their own to require their workers to get the shot.

The dustup will almost certainly end up in court since GOP attorneys general in nearly half of the states have vowed to sue once the rule is unveiled.

The courts have long upheld vaccine mandates, and the Constitution gives the federal government the upper hand over the states, but with the details still unannounced and more conservative judges on the bench, the outcome is not entirely clear.

White House officials brushed off Abbott’s order, saying the question of whether state law could supersede federal was settled 160 years ago during the Civil War. They said the Biden administration will push through the opposition and put into effect the president’s package of mandates, which could affect up to 100 million Americans in all.

Noting the nation’s COVID-19 death toll of more than 700,000, White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused the opposition of putting politics ahead of safety.

“I think it’s pretty clear when you make a choice that’s against all public health information and data out there, that it’s not based on what is in the interests of the people you are governing. It is perhaps in the interest of your own politics,” she said.

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Arkansas have approved a measure creating vaccine-mandate exemptions. Though the GOP governor hasn’t said whether he will sign it, it has prompted fears businesses will be forced to choose whether to break federal or state law.

“We are tying the hands of Arkansas businesses that want to make their own decision in how best to keep their people safe,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Some of the state’s largest companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, have required some or all employees get vaccinated.

Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccine mandates have been heard in states like Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is so far resisting calls to immediately consider a bill that would guarantee people could opt out.

“I hear from people almost daily who are going to lose their jobs, are living in fear,” said Republican state Rep. Scott Odenbach, who has clashed with Noem on the issue. “They shouldn’t have to choose between feeding their family and their own medical freedom.”

In Tennessee, a $500 million incentive deal to lure a Ford Motor Co. project could be undermined if GOP Gov. Bill Lee refuses to consider further loosening COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine requirements, the powerful House speaker told a local radio station.

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is also resisting a push from within his party to ban workplace vaccine mandates.

Bills are being introduced or drafted elsewhere too, including swing states like Ohio and New Hampshire, where the Republican sponsor was elected House speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19.

In Utah, lawmakers have not taken action, but a record-setting crowd of over 600 people packed a legislative hearing room last week.

Judson Greenhill, 4, of Gatesville, tries to hang on during a preliminary round of mutton bustin’ at the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo, which continues through Sunday. There are two rounds open to kids ages 4-7 every day of the fair, and the top riders get a chance to ride during the nightly rodeos.

New Jesus Said Love mural pays tribute to exploited women and offers hope

A new mural at Jesus Said Love headquarters honors four women who have died in recent years and builds on sketches by one of them to serve some of the same purposes as the organization itself.

The 18-year-old nonprofit at 1500 Columbus Ave. aims to support women exploited by commercial sex industry and human trafficking. The mural spreads the message that exploited women are in the Waco community, they matter and are welcome at Jesus Said Love, founder Emily Mills said.

“When you are marginalized and disenfranchised you do feel forgotten,” Mills said. “You feel like society doesn’t see you, the systems don’t see you and that everything has failed you, that your needs and your presence doesn’t matter. … It means a lot to be seen.”

The mural unveiled last week honors four women who had walked through the doors at Jesus Said Love: Dixie, who died in 2011; Alexis, who died last year; and Kathleen and Angela, who died this year. It uses Kathleen’s artwork to tell her story and, inevitably, the story of many others, Mills said.

“Hers was one of long-term struggle, longtime work in the industry, who we cared for, but eventually she died of health complications, she died of a heart attack,” Mills said.

Kathleen, an artist, had dissociative identity disorder and often reflected her distinct personalities through her artwork, Mills said.

For her, Kathleen’s artwork reflected different stages of her metamorphosis as she would often work through her own pain and suffering through art.

“I see Kathleen seeing herself as two-dimensional bones and then being transformed into a full-colored dancer,” Mills said.

For Melissa “Mimi” Normart, case manager at Jesus Said Love and project leader for the Love My Momma program, the art is not just a reflection of those victims who have died.

“It means a lot to all the survivors because it lets us know that when we walk through the doors we are important and we are loved and we are wanted and we mean something to somebody,” Normart said. “Even when we aren’t here on this earth, we are still going to mean something, our footprints ... they meant something.”

The mural isn’t only for direct victims of sex trafficking, but for family and friends who are also affected by the hardships their loved ones faced.

Mills shared the story of Alexis, who died in a car accident in 2020, after relapsing and leaving the program. Mills said she hopes the mural will be a comfort to Alexis’ sister.

“This is also for her so she can come as a family member who lost someone to this life and she can find peace here,” Mills said.

Mills said it is not uncommon for family members to come by the organization.

“This is really just for everyone to find strength and hope even in grief, it is for family who have lost someone,” Mills said, sharing that Angela’s daughter asked when the mural would be complete so she could stop by to see it and remember her mom.

By using art, Mills hopes others will be able to connect to their pain and create a space where grief is not only allowed but also honored.

“One of the things that this work has taught me is that our stories are significant, no matter where we come from, all of us are surviving something,” Mills said. “Grief is an invitation to your story and we have to be able to honor the things that we lose along the journey of life. It is part of what makes us whole.”

With the idea in mind, Mills knew the perfect artists she could entrust the task of transforming Kathleen’s work into a colorful mural for everyone to enjoy.

Mill’s reached out to local Waco-based artist Will Suarez, who has been commissioned to do other murals around the city including one that is exhibited on the side of Putter’s, and explained the premise of her idea.

“We had an incredible conversation about what it means to battle mental illness,” Mills said. “He understands what grief is, he understands what loss is, he understands those waves of depression and feeling stuck and he uses that as a catalyst to create something beautiful from.”

Suarez knew he wanted to be involved in the project.

“I felt really honored to celebrate her and her art as well, even though I didn’t get to meet her,” Suarez said. “It was just an honor to take what she did and evolve it a little bit.”

Suarez said he saw her sketches and was drawn emotionally into the story they were telling.

“Seeing her sketches you can tell that it was the same person but five or six completely different styles but they showed the development of one person,” Suarez said, saying he was able to see how Kathleen, who suffered from personality disorders, used her art to draw different versions of herself.

This was the first time Suarez had used someone else’s art as groundwork for a mural so it was important for him to keep parts of Kathleen’s work the same.

“It speaks to her style,” Suarez said. “It’s a little different than what I normally do but I was able to blend it together. The roughness and blurriness of the lines is more of her work so I was happy to honor her style as well.”

Through looking at Kathleen’s art, Suarez was able to connect emotionally to her.

“For this mural and much of the work that I have done, it’s more open ended and I try to promote peace and kindness and whatever emotions it may stir in someone, that is my ultimate goal,” Suarez said. “To connect with someone through my artwork.”

Mills also knew the importance of Suarez using his voice to lift up Kathleen’s.

“Ninety-seven percent of all harm in sexual violence against women in perpetuated by men so really this isn’t just a women’s issue,” she said. “This is about men and how men can be involved.”

The mural took three days of work and was unveiled on Monday at a donor dinner that Jesus Said Love held.

The organization’s next step is a memorial garden featuring benches with a clear view of the mural.

“We are still raising funds to get custom benches nestled between the pecan trees upfront as a spot where we can plant living flowers and a butterfly garden, which represents metamorphosis,” Mills said. “But also a place where we can dedicate benches to survivors who we have lost along the way.”

Normart said that as a survivor herself, she knows that having these dedicated spaces will encourage other survivors to walk through the doors of Jesus Said Love as they will know that they are important.

She said the garden and mural not only represent loss but also renewal for those who are still alive.

“It’s a representation of the old them passing and this is the new them, and this is a place where they can come and cope with that,” Normart said. “We need it, survivors need to see it.”

Mills hopes that anyone who visits the mural and takes a picture in front of it opens their heart to the message they are portraying.

“That survivors are resilient and we can pick up where they left off and where they have gone before us and we can carry that torch, we can carry that fire of hope with them,” Mills said. “This is a memorial not only for those who are gone but for those of us who live with grief, who have lived through what it means to have broken family systems, dysfunctional systems, mental illness. It means there is hope.”

Job quits hit record pace

WASHINGTON — One reason America’s employers are having trouble filling jobs was starkly illustrated in a report Tuesday: Americans are quitting in droves.

The Labor Department said that quits jumped to 4.3 million in August, the highest on records dating back to December 2000, and up from 4 million in July. That’s equivalent to nearly 3% of the workforce. Hiring also slowed in August, the report showed, and the number of jobs available fell to 10.4 million, from a record high of 11.1 million the previous month.

The data helps fill in a puzzle that is looming over the job market: Hiring slowed sharply in August and September, even as the number of posted jobs was near record levels. In the past year, open jobs increased 62%. Yet overall hiring, as measured by Tuesday’s report, declined slightly during that time.

The jump in quits suggests that fear of the delta variant is partly responsible for the shortfall in workers. In addition to driving quits, fear of the disease probably caused plenty of those out of work to not look for, or take, jobs.

As COVID-19 cases surged in August, quits soared in restaurants and hotels from the previous month and rose in other public-facing jobs, such as retail and education. Nearly 900,000 people left jobs at restaurants, bars, and hotels in August, up 21% from July. Quits by retail workers rose 6%.

Yet in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing, quits barely increased. In professional and business services, which includes fields such as law, engineering, and architecture, where most employees can work from home, quitting was largely flat.

Other factors also likely contributed to the jump in quits. With many employers desperate for workers and wages rising at a healthy pace, workers have a much greater ability to demand higher pay, or go elsewhere to find it.

The data from August is probably too early to reflect the impact of vaccine mandates. President Joe Biden’s mandate was not announced until Sept. 9. United Airlines announced its mandate in early August, but it was one of the first companies to do so. Layoffs were unchanged in August, the report found.

The government said Friday that job gains were weak for a second straight month in September, with only 194,000 jobs added, though the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%. Friday’s hiring figure is a net total, after quits, retirements, and layoffs are taken into account. Tuesday’s report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, includes raw figures, and showed that total hiring in August fell sharply, to 6.3 million from 6.8 million in July.

The data is “highlighting the immense problems businesses are dealing with,” said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, in an email. “Not enough people. Not enough equipment and/or parts. Meantime, customers are waiting for their orders, or waiting to place their orders. What a strange world this is.”

Quits also rose the most in the South and Midwest, the government said, the two regions with the worst COVID outbreaks in August.

When workers quit, it is typically seen as a good sign for the job market, because people usually leave jobs when they already have other positions or are confident they can find one. The large increase in August probably does reflect some of that confidence among workers.

But the fact that the increase in quits was heavily concentrated in sectors that involve close contact with the public is a sign that fear of COVID also played a large role. Many people may have quit even without other jobs to take.

The sharp increase in job openings also has an international dimension: Job vacancies have reached a record level in the United Kingdom, though that is partly because many European workers left the U.K. after Brexit.

Waco schools' lawyer argues mask mandate suit should join others filed by AG

An attorney representing Waco-area school districts in lawsuits over school mask mandates filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a judge Tuesday to abate the local suits and add them to cases already pending in a Travis County intermediate appellate court.

Judge Vicki Menard of Waco’ 414th State District Court heard arguments from attorneys for the Attorney General’s Office and Waco and La Vega school districts in a continuation of a hearing she started Sept. 27. Paxton’s office is seeking temporary injunctions to force Waco and La Vega independent school district officials to discontinue their mask mandates and to abide by Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates by state entities.

Abbott doubled down on his controversial COVID-19 orders Monday by issuing an executive order barring any entity, including private companies, from requiring COVID-19 vaccines.

Menard did not make a ruling after Tuesday’s three-hour hearing and has not ruled on the AG’s request for temporary injunctions against the school districts. Midway and McGregor schools also were included as defendants in the original lawsuit, but the AG agreed to dismiss them after Midway argued it had no such mandate in place and McGregor argued its mandate was not enforced.

Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon has said the district decided to issue the mask mandate after the deaths of local educators and an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the school year. Since the mandate was instituted, COVID-19 cases have dipped dramatically, officials have said.

Dallas attorney Carlos Lopez, a former state district judge, argued in his motion to abate the cases that 95% of courts that have heard similar motions have ruled against the attorney general’s office, and appeals of those rulings already are pending in the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. He suggested that for the sake of judicial economy and to prevent a confusing patchwork of rulings on the same issue that Menard abate the two cases in Waco and add them to the dozen or so cases pending in Austin.

Lopez said the state’s continued insistence on pressing Menard to issue the temporary injunction amounts to “forum shopping,” a tactic used by attorneys to try to find a court possibly favorable to their position.

“We are here because other courts ruled against them and they want another bite at the apple,” Lopez said. “They are saying, ‘We want a do-over.’ If you abate the cases, then they can all go up in a nice, consistent package because we all know this matter is ultimately going to be settled by the Texas Supreme Court anyway.”

Assistant Attorney General Will Wassdorf said McLennan County is the proper venue for the lawsuit because Waco and La Vega schools are violating the mask mandate ban and they are in McLennan County.

“The venue to sue Waco and La Vega is not proper in Travis County,” Wassdorf said. “If we allow the Travis County cases to continue and sit on our laurels until it is over, we will be right back here to establish that Waco and La Vega violated the mask mandate.”

Lopez countered that Wassdorf was “looking for a difference without a distinction.”

“The question literally is whether (Abbott’s executive order) is valid,” Lopez said. “If it weren’t for the disaster declaration by the governor, nobody would be claiming the school districts have been violating mask mandates.”

Lopez also challenged Paxton’s authority to bring the lawsuits, arguing the Texas Constitution gives the attorney general authority to represent the state before the Supreme Court of Texas and “to perform such other duties as may be required by law.” The constitution, Lopez argued, says that county and district attorneys “shall” represent the state in all cases on the state district court and lower levels in their respective counties.

Wassdorf told Menard that the attorney general is the state’s chief legal officer with broad discretionary power to represent the state.

“Whether based on the implied powers of the Attorney General as Chief Legal Officer of Texas originating in the common law of England or on judicial gloss through the acquiescence of over a century of courts, one thing is clear: the Attorney General can and must be allowed to represent the State of Texas and preserve the rule of law,” Wassdorf wrote in his response to Lopez’s challenge.