HOUSTON – The city has stopped offering free flu shots at early voting sites after Republicans alleged it was a ploy by the mayor to lure more Democrats to the polls.
The vaccinations, for people 50 and over, had been offered at early voting sites in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Health officials said they were targeting medically underserved areas, not Democratic neighborhoods.
"There was no political motive whatsoever to do it," said Mayor Bill White, the former head of the Texas Democratic Party. He said he ended the program Wednesday, after it provided 1,300 flu shots over three days, because he didn't want "to spend more money in defending a baseless lawsuit than we're giving away in vaccine or allow anybody to question the integrity of the political process."
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But some Republicans accused White of using the program to boost Democrats' election prospects. Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill said the offer violated a state law that bars people from accepting anything in exchange for a vote.
"I think the program was completely motivated by a plan to turn out Democratic voters," Woodfill said.
A $320,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded "Vote and Vax" flu-shot drives in Houston and 24 other U.S. cities, according to the health advocacy organization. The 10-year-old program targets communities where relatively few people get flu shots.
Foundation officials say the program is a convenient way for older people, who are especially vulnerable to the disease, to get vaccinated from a disease that kills 32,000 people over 65 every year.
Dr. Douglas Shenson, the director of the flu-shot program for the foundation, said he does not know of problems with the program in any other city.
"It's an entirely nonpartisan and nonpolitical activity," Shenson said. "It's not a get-out-the-vote campaign. It's a get-out-the-vaccine campaign."
Polls are an ideal place to access large numbers of people who need the vaccine. "I'm disappointed this has happened," he said.
Stephen Williams, Houston's health director, said residents did not have to vote to get the shots, and that he consulted with the county clerk to ensure the program was legal.
Harold Dickey, 81, arrived at one of the four polling sites where flu shots had been offered right after the mayor ended the program.
"That's a hell of a thing to do," Dickey, who had voted days earlier, told the Houston Chronicle. "The shot wasn't tied to my vote in any way."
Williams said he hoped to get permission to offer the remaining 1,600 flu shots in less controversial locations.
Early voting runs through Friday. Election Day is Tuesday.