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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.
Matthew McConaughey is reportedly weighing a run for Texas governor in 2022.
The Austin resident and Oscar winner has been "quietly making calls to influential people in Texas political circles, including a deep-pocketed moderate Republican and energy CEO" as he decides whether to run, according to Politico.
McConaughey said a gubernatorial run is "a true consideration" while on a March episode of Houston's "The Balanced Voice" podcast.
Although most political strategists doubt McConaughey's commitment and viability as a candidate, some are still intrigued by the possibility.
"I find it improbable, but it's not out of the question," Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist with a long history in Austin, told the political news site. He added that the big question is whether McConaughey would run as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, told Politico he's surprised McConaughey isn't being taken more seriously. "Celebrity in this country counts for a lot," he said. "It's not like some C-list actor no one likes. He has an appeal."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to run for a third term and remains popular among Republican voters, 77% of whom approve of his performance as of April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
Some strategists believe an independent McConaughey run would benefit Abbott. But a recent poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that McConaughey would beat Abbott, 45% to 33%, with 22% opting for someone else.
Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, mulled a McConaughey run in a recent opinion essay from the New York Times. "Texas may not be ready for a philosopher king as a candidate, much less governor," she wrote. "May the best man win, man."
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Some JuiceLand production facility workers and storefront employees are organizing to demand wage increases, better working conditions (including air conditioning in the warehouse) and pay transparency, among other asks. They are also calling on staff to strike and customers to boycott the Austin-based company until their demands are met.
JuiceLand responded on Saturday. "We are listening," the company wrote on their Instagram story. "JuiceLand crew now makes guaranteed $15 an hour or more companywide."
JuiceLand, which was founded in 2001 by Matt Shook and now has 35 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas, acknowledged the rising cost of living across Texas and the added stress of the pandemic in an email to employees on Saturday, part of which @juicelandworkersrights shared on social media. "There's no denying that times are tough and financial security means more now than ever," the company wrote.
Organized JuiceLand workers rejected this proposal, according to a recent post on the @juicelandworkersrights Instagram account, and reiterated their demands.
"Cost of living in Austin is rising exponentially and will only continue to get worse with the tech boom," the post read. "$15 is barely a sustainable living."