Greg Abbott Surrenders to the Coronavirus

The Texas governor’s warped priorities are allowing an extremist minority to worsen the pandemic.

The emergency center at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston, Texas
Brandon Bell / Getty

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Updated at 10 a.m. ET on August 12, 2021.

A year and a half into the pandemic, Texas is running out of hospital beds.

The Texas Tribune reported on Tuesday that nearly 10,000 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized, and that the state’s intensive-care units are being overwhelmed. Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order asking hospitals to delay elective procedures and authorizing local facilities to seek out-of-state medical staff to help with the coronavirus surge, which is approaching levels not seen since winter. Despite the desperate situation, Texas’s case rate is not even the worst in the nation—Louisiana and Florida have more cases per capita.

The coronavirus pandemic should have been over by now, but instead the U.S. is facing what some medical experts have described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Last week, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff held a press conference urging residents to get vaccinated, offering a dramatic chart showing that close to 90 percent of new infections are among the unvaccinated, who in turn make up 95 percent of hospitalizations. Out of the nearly 9,000 Texans who died of the coronavirus from February 8 to July 14, just 43 were known to be vaccinated. In other words, unvaccinated people constituted 99.5 percent of coronavirus deaths in Texas during that period.

Calling it a pandemic of the unvaccinated, however, may mislead some people into believing that the current wave is merely a problem for those who haven’t gotten the shots. The surge is straining the state’s hospital capacity, forcing Texans to delay medical procedures. Children under 12 remain unvaccinated, and some adolescents and adults who have gotten the shot, including those who are immunocompromised, remain vulnerable to infection and serious illness because of the Delta variant. The longer so many people go unvaccinated, the more likely the evolution of even-more-deadly strains of the disease becomes. And, put simply, you should care when the people around you are dying in droves of a preventable illness.

As my colleague Ed Yong has written, being unvaccinated and being anti-vaccination are not the same. Startlingly consistent statistics across states, no matter which party is governing, show that low-income people are more likely to be unvaccinated, particularly if they are Black or Latino, than their wealthier peers. There is no silver bullet for increasing vaccination rates—mandates will help, but community-based outreach efforts are also necessary, and employers must give workers sufficient time to get the vaccine and recover from potential short term side-effects without having that affect their employment. The U.S. appears to be compounding one of the original tragedies of the pandemic: The essential workers who kept society functioning as the nation was ravaged by a plague were more likely to be felled by the illness, and they are now less likely to access the vaccine that could save their lives. America has failed them twice.

For this reason, the coronavirus surge is not entirely attributable to conservative media’s irresponsible campaign against vaccines, which makes the campaign no less reprehensible. Taking a cue from the once and future king of the conservative movement, Donald Trump, right-wing media outlets such as Fox News have devoted hours and hours to programming that is, if not outright anti-vaccine, at the very least anti-pro-vaccine. The same outlets have portrayed other mitigation efforts, such as mask requirements, as a form of tyranny. Some Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have responsibly sought to counter this messaging, but they are the exception.

Although this misinformation is a real issue, and has driven a partisan divide in vaccination, not every unvaccinated person is being brainwashed by conservative media. The larger issue is that the conservative media’s devotion to undermining vaccination encourages Republican elected officials with political ambitions to make irresponsible public-health decisions, because they understand how media coverage shapes the attitudes of the GOP’s voters. Vaccine mandates for things such as school and air travel are supported by more than 60 percent of Texans, despite the state’s conservative lean. But Republican elected leaders fear the wrath of the GOP primary electorate more than they fear thousands of residents of their states dying of COVID-19.

Abbott and Texas Republican legislators have undermined virtually every effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In June, Abbott signed legislation that would deny state contracts or licenses to businesses that require proof of vaccination. Last month, he issued an executive order banning cities and other jurisdictions from enacting mask and vaccination mandates, even though schools across the state already and rightfully require other vaccinations for students to enroll. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates,” Abbott proclaimed, while issuing a government mandate. Many Texas cities are in revolt, instituting their own mask mandates in defiance of Abbott’s directives and taking the governor to court.

Abbott did, however, direct state troopers to stop vehicles suspected of transporting undocumented immigrants, a reaction to the widespread conservative falsehood that immigrants are propelling the pandemic surge. The primary step Abbott has taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, in other words, is to encourage armed agents of the state to engage in racial profiling. You know, in the name of freedom.

These efforts are not justifiable on the principles conservatives claim to hold. They are not small-government measures, given that they represent intrusive state intervention. They do not respect local control, given that they bar cities and other jurisdictions from taking measures that their residents want them to take. And they are not deferential to the free market, given that they seek to use the state to punish businesses that engage in mitigation efforts. They are designed solely to appeal to the culture-war shibboleths of right-wing media, no matter how many Texans die as a result.

A pathetic irony is that Texas Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz, who has proposed banning vaccine mandates on the federal level, formerly insisted that the seriousness of the pandemic was a liberal plot to harm Trump and would subside when he left office, as would liberal support for mitigation measures. But now Cruz, ever the craven apparatchik, the type of man who kissed the ring of someone who smeared his father and insulted his wife, is opposing the policies that would more quickly end the pandemic and make such measures unnecessary.

But liberals should not allow themselves to indulge in smugness here. The consequences of this madness will fall on liberal and conservative alike, and disproportionately on working-class Americans of all backgrounds. It is not simply the most conservative areas of Texas that are lagging in vaccinations; Black and Latino communities across the state also have lower-than-average vaccination rates. And even the voters who support Abbott’s approach deserve better than his disastrous anti-governance; their lives are also worth saving.

Perhaps, you might say, this is democracy in action. Texas after all is a red state, and so Abbott acting according to the preferences of the right wing of his party is simply him being responsible to the public. Even if we set aside Texas Republicans’ careful and long-standing efforts to engineer a more conservative electorate, though, the present situation illustrates something deeply dysfunctional about our democracy. Something is wrong when an extreme primary electorate has such a stranglehold on a state of 29 million people that a public official believes it is against his interest to take basic steps to keep his own constituents alive.


This story originally stated that 10,000 COVID-19 patients are in Texas ICUs; in fact, that is the total number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.