When a spokesman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday night that the man leading his state's open embrace of the latest coronavirus surge had, himself, contracted coronavirus, it was largely met with the sort of schadenfreude and derision typically reserved for former presidents with the last name "Trump." But behind the obvious irony of a man who enthusiastically barred communities from doing one of the few things shown to mitigate the pandemic's spread being infected by that same virus, Abbott's (non)handling of his state's increasingly catastrophic uptick in cases is, itself, a perfect microcosm of how conservative politicians in America have turned their states into disease epicenters.
"We are entering the worst surge in sheer numbers," Dr. Mark Casanova of the Texas Medical Association's COVID-19 Task Force told the Texas Tribune on Wednesday. "This is the fourth round of what should have been a three-round fight. We do have very sincere concerns that the numbers game is going to overwhelm us."
In no small part, that surge is being animated by the scores of unvaccinated people — still more than half the state, so far — who now account for more than 90% of Texas's coronavirus hospitalizations, according to health officials who spoke with the Tribune. Florida, arguably the only other state that could rival Texas for conservative-motivated pandemic surrender, has seen similarly dire predictions for its hospitals as cases skyrocket there too.
In Texas, though, Abbott's diagnosis underscores the continued danger the pandemic poses, even to those who, like Abbott, have already been vaccinated. It also highlights both the disparity in Texas's COVID treatments, and the hypocrisy inherent in Abbott's pro-COVID policies. As his office stated, Abbott is now receiving Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment, typically reserved for severe infections, despite his case being largely asymptomatic — a result, he suggested in a short video posted to Twitter after his office's announcement, of his already being vaccinated. His diagnosis comes shortly after his campaign shared photos of Abbott hobnobbing with other GOP figures, all unmasked, just one day earlier.
Should Abbott recover — which by all indications is overwhelmingly likely — he will almost certainly use his survival as proof positive that the masking and vaccination mandates he has so staunchly opposed are obviously unnecessary. "I didn't wear a mask, I got COVID, and I'm fine!" will probably be the line. But few people in Texas have access to the sort of dedicated medical treatment team available to Abbott — and fewer still will have access to even more basic levels of treatment, given the state's overwhelmed hospital system. Should Abbott use his coronavirus case as an excuse to continue pushing against other communities managing their own health needs, he will be doing so from a position of incredible privilege, at the expense of millions without the access he enjoys. Indeed, his relative insulation from the dangerous realities of COVID are in no small part what makes his ongoing dismissal of mask mandates so abhorrent. He feels entitled to oppose them on the abstract ground of personal freedom, while knowing full well that he and his ilk will never truly face the consequences of what that entails.
Which isn't to say the rest of Texas is entirely helpless in the face of Abbott's selfish indifference. While some communities and school districts have overtly defied Abbott's anti-mask mandate edict, others have gotten creative: The Paris Independent School District, centered about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, announced Wednesday that it had voted not to impose a mask mandate in violation of the governor's order, but to simply modify the district dress code to "mitigate communicable health issues."
In a statement announcing the new policy, the district board of trustees wrote that:
The Texas governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees's exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district. Nothing in the governor's Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.
Whether Abbott will attempt to punish the district for its exploitation of a simple loophole in his callous attempt to expose children to a deadly disease remains to be seen. He probably has other things on his mind this week. However, the fact remains that Texas under his leadership has become a terrifying example of what happens when those in power can stand so utterly removed from the consequences of their actions that not even contracting a deadly disease is enough to change their mind.