AUSTIN, Texas – The commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services says the Lone Start State coped very well with Covid-19.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, MD, spoke about the state of public health at a recent conference hosted by the Texas Medical Association in Austin. 

At the event, Hellerstedt was honored for his many years of service by state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.

“Texas and our society as a whole, really weathered the storm very well. I’m not a veteran, I’ve never been in combat but I do think the analogies to fighting the pandemic as a form of warfare are fair, because it was a matter of life and death, sacrifice, struggle, cost, anxiety,” Hellerstedt said. 

“Our society is intact, and we are ready to go forward from this and prosper. That outcome was by no means preordained. If we had not been able to, if you will, thread the needle and make our way through to this point it could have been a genuine catastrophe. Instead, it was just a big disaster.”

Hellerstedt said one of the best things about Texas’ vaccine response was the formation of an expert vaccine evaluation panel in Texas. 

“It was a 17 member group, people who developed vaccines, previous commissioners, academics biologists. But, really, I think the key to its success was having four senior members of the Texas Legislature participate, and boy did they participate. They were there working the whole time,” Hellerstedt said.

“And what it did was it gave them insight into the fact that there’s a lot to know there’s a lot of data, there’s a lot of interpretation that needs to go into it. A lot of science, but in the end, you’re talking about making policy judgments about what is the best way to serve people.”

Hellerstedt said many states followed the vaccine priority model Texas adopted, which was to take care of those working in hospitals and the elderly first. 

“It you went to work (in a hospital), there was a 100% chance you’re exposed to COVID. You can’t say that about any other professional situation. And so part of my background as a physician administrator, made me also realize the hospital is a team. It is a tightly knit team. It’s not just doctors and not even just nurses, it’s pharmacists. It is chaplains. It’s the food service. It’s the housekeeping service. You have to keep all of those people healthy, as healthy as possible and as protected as possible. So they have the confidence to come to work and they continue to serve all of us.”

The original Covid-19 virus was about as contagious as the flu, Hellerstedt recalled. However, he said the current variants are about as contagious as measles and mumps, which are among the most contagious diseases.

“In addition the sneaky virus has found ways to reinfect people who had been infected with previous versions of the virus and also to evade the immunity that comes from the current vaccines, although there’s potentially some relief on the way,” Hellerstedt said.

“But keep in mind, viruses don’t want to kill you viruses want to reproduce. And that is exactly the trend that we’ve seen in the variants that we have. They’re more capable of causing of causing infection, but they’re less susceptible to making people seriously ill.”

Hellerstedt said he believed Texas did a “pretty damn good job” of communicating news about Covid-19.

“Back in the day when there were news conferences, I was here, the governor was there,” he explained. “I was providing advice. He was making policy he was making decisions. That is precisely the right combination, because policies are always about compromise. Policies are always about weighing risks and benefits of actions. And also the policies in our society are about the consent of the governed, if you will. You can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers, so you have to be able to do things that people trust, and you’re gonna have to enact the things that people are going to do. Because if they don’t do them, there’s no point in having some pie in the sky sensibility out there.”

Going back to his point about victory over Covid-19 not being preordained, Hellerstedt said:

“In my opinion, the victory that we enjoy today was by no means for ordained. It could have turned out much worse very badly. And the fact that we are where we are today is a tribute to the fact that enough people did enough of the right things,” he said.

As for citizens not listening to elected officials, Hellerstedt said that was sad.

“It’s like Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. And it’s absolutely true,” Hellerstedt said.

“And so we we did it our way we did it the American way. We did it the Texas way. It wasn’t the perfect way, necessarily.”

But, he said, “it got us through to where we are and we should take stock of that and say to ourselves, we do have what it takes to face a crisis.” 

Hellerstedt finished by referencing a question he gets asked a lot: what should society do to prepare for the next pandemic? His response:

“Well, I’ll tell you what we should do. We should prevent the next pandemic. We should figure out ways to monitor for emerging pathogens and be able to suppress them before they get to a pandemic level. A pandemic means that all of your defenses have been overwhelmed. And if you get to a pandemic situation, again, it’s going to not be about the science. It’s going to be about society. And if you have a pandemic, that means society is in crisis, and that’s the thing you want to avoid.”

Editor’s Note: The watch the Texas Medical Association conference, including Dr. Hellerstedt’s speech, click here.

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