By Sami Sparber
Texas-based anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network was among five anti-vaccine groups that collectively received more than $850,000 in federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Washington Post reported Monday. The organization received $166,000 in May 2020, according to founder Del Bigtree.
"Vaccine hesitancy" or "vaccine skepticism" poses a significant and ongoing challenge for health authorities trying to overcome mistrust within communities of color, by the anti-vaccine crowd and general uncertainty nationwide. Doctors and scientists say the coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States are safe and effective.
"At a minimum, it's a mixed message from the government," said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. "Those individuals who are hesitant are going to be looking to various pieces of information to help them make this decision...and if one of the key pieces of information coming out is the government funding anti-vaccine groups, it could send a signal to these individuals that maybe they shouldn't be vaccinating," he told The Texas Tribune.
The Austin-based nonprofit has more than 43,000 followers on Facebook and regularly posts information questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. Bigtree's online anti-vaccine talk show was penalized by Facebook and YouTube last year for violating misinformation policies and downplaying the severity of the pandemic.
Facebook has cracked down on several of the groups that received the PPP loans, a spokesperson for the social network told the Post. Informed Consent Action Network's page, labeled with a link to Facebook's Coronavirus Information Center, is not being recommended to users by the company's algorithms, the Facebook spokesperson told the Post.
In an interview, Bigtree said his organization spent the funds on employees' salaries. "Just like everybody else, we were trying to keep employees employed instead of putting them on unemployment," Bigtree told The Tribune. He described the effect of Facebook's anti-misinformation efforts on his organization's content as "censorship" and a "dangerous" sign of the times.
Recent polling shows vaccine skepticism poses a public health threat in Texas, where Republican elected officials have largely echoed President Donald Trump's minimizing of the pandemic, said James Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. An October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that if a vaccine against the coronavirus became available at a low cost, 42% of Texas registered voters said they would try to get it and 36% said they wouldn't — a significant drop from the 59% who said in a UT/Texas Politics Project poll in June that they would get vaccinated against the disease.
That anti-vaccine groups received PPP funds "sticks out as being really at odds with public health, but the bigger problem here is that there has been a pronounced lack of consistent messaging on the safety, effectiveness and necessity of the vaccine from both national and statewide leaders, in particular Republicans," Henson said. "That's left a huge vacuum where there should be unambiguous messaging about the vaccine."
The five groups that received the loans are The National Vaccine Information Center, Mercola Com Health Resources LLC, Informed Consent Action Network, Children's Health Defense Co., and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, according to the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, the Post reported.
When Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would rescind business capacity limits and a statewide masking mandate on Texas Independence Day, he framed it as a step forward. "With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny," he said during a press conference at a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock.
But some local restaurants and bars, which have been caught in the regulatory crosshairs since Texas' first positive COVID test 364 days ago, have chosen to ignore Abbott's overture. Instead, they will continue to maintain pandemic precautions once the executive order takes effect next week, citing a desire to keep their staff and patrons safe.
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(AUSTIN, TEXAS) Austonia has hired Claire Partain as a reporter covering Austin FC, the MLS expansion team that will be Austin's first major league sports franchise.
Partain is a former sports editor for the The University Star, Texas State University's daily newspaper. She edited, covered sports, produced podcasts, and hosted a pre-game TXST football tailgate live series. Partain has been freelancing with the company since January, prior to accepting a staff position.
A native of Fairfield, Texas, Partain grew up playing youth soccer. In her high school years, she played alongside her mother in what was then called the Freestone County Hispanic Women's Soccer League.
Claire's coverage philosophy: "I like to bring out the humanity of sports, and I want to make this the most accessible sports coverage possible."
She notes that soccer is the predominant sport for young people. "It's a global sport, and we're more connected to the world than older generations."
That approach fits the team's already visible presence in Austin, says Austonia CEO Mark Dewey. "Austin FC has established itself as a leading Austin brand, one that stands for a more unified Austin community, a bigger global presence for Austin and fun. Austonia shares those values."
Partain's soccer coverage begins immediately, with her free, hosted text service—Austonia FC. For updates, special access and inside info, all moderated by Claire, sign up below.
Austonia is the city's independent, free, locally-owned and all-digital source for Austin news, information and entertainment.
Connect with Austonia through its daily email newsletter and text updates, @austonianews Instagram feed, @austonianews and @austinist Twitter feeds, @austonianews Facebook page and its website austonia.com.
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Austin Public Health will release another batch of first dose COVID-19 vaccine appointments for Thursday on Wednesday evening. A department spokesperson estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 slots will be available.
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