As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, public health experts are concerned about vaccine hesitancy, which they say could undermine efforts to achieve herd immunity and leave individuals vulnerable to the disease. Austonia spoke with three vaccine skeptics to learn more about their reasons for opting out.
A calculated risk
Jocelyn Windsor, 63, is a retired nurse who lives in Cedar Park and has chosen not to get a COVID vaccine. "I try to take care of myself so that my own immune system can handle most things," she told Austonia.
Windsor says she is overweight but otherwise in good health; regularly washes her hands and practices natural medicine. She would prefer not to have to wear a mask or social distance. And she has concerns about the vaccine. The CDC's evolving guidance on what recipients can do safely has undermined her confidence in their recommendations, and she worries about possible long-term side effects. "We truly do not know what the end game is going to look like with this," she said. "I'm just praying that we don't all die."
Windsor finds it hard to find information that supports her point of view, shunning the CDC and the World Health Organization in the favor of YouTube channels, like those of David Martin, a financial analyst and self-help entrepreneur who has pushed some pandemic-related conspiracy theories; Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has promoted supplements as an alternative to vaccinations; and Dr. Simone Gold, who founded the pro-hydroxychloroquine, anti-vaccine group America's Frontline Doctors and was arrested after participating in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
Windsor also acknowledges the pandemic and the higher risk it poses for some demographics. "The nurse in me, seeing what happened this last year with (more than) 500,000 dead Americans and listening to some of the horror stories, I can see where someone who is not in the best of health should really decide for themselves what kind of risk they're going to take," she said. But for her the risk of COVID is preferable to the risk of a vaccine against it. "If COVID takes me out, at least I'll go out without a mask," she said.
A loudening concern
Del Bigtree, a former television producer and founder of the Austin-based, anti-vaccine Informed Consent Action Network, said these concerns are increasingly common and have been exacerbated by Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership initiated by former President Donald Trump last May to accelerate the vaccine rollout. "This COVID pandemic has really made (vaccine hesitancy) grow exponentially because, prior to this, no one asked the appropriate questions," he said.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., left, who was barred from Instagram for spreading vaccine misinformation, represented ICAN founder Del Bigtree in a 2018 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (ICAN)
Bigtree has a litany of concerns about vaccine safety, but his number-one is legal immunity granted by the federal government to some pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines. Former Health and Human Services Alex Azar invoked the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act last February, which protects companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson from vaccine injury lawsuits through 2024.
Pharmaceutical companies are out to make money, Bigtree said, citing the Oxycontin-fueled opioid crisis and the thousands of lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson, whose baby powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos. He argues that, if the federal government waives liability and is also responsible for ensuring product safety, then neither the companies nor the government are incentivized to address vaccine injuries. "It's literally like a murder case where the murderer is doing the forensics," he said.
A slippery slope
Rusty Parker, 61, lives in Georgetown and owns a managing consulting business. He is a Republican who has opted out of the vaccine for a variety of reasons, including his distrust in the government; the CDC's changing messages, including its recently conflicting guidance on whether people who are vaccinated can travel safely; and what he views as the very low statistical probability that he will contract COVID and die from it.
"Another factor in my questioning in the validity of universal vaccinations for all Americans is when I see Gov. Gavin Newsom of California saying there should be no gathering, and then he's at a restaurant at a long table," Parker said, referring to Newsom's widely criticized Nov. 6 outing to the French Laundry for a birthday party.
Like Windsor, Parker is not opposed to people choosing to get the vaccine if they are in a high-risk group. His father is 83 and has comorbidities that make his immune system more susceptible to COVID. "I'm glad he got both shots," he said.
But Parker worries about what he sees as federal overreach during the pandemic, from shutting down certain businesses temporarily to the prospect of vaccine passports, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited state agencies from issuing.
When asked what his worst fear is, Parker says, "Martial law." He acknowledges that the words feel strange coming out of his mouth, but he is scared of what's to come. "I have dwindling confidence that over the next several years our freedoms will increase."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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