Clay Higgins

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins did not tell the American Press editorial board Thursday whether he has received the COVID-19 vaccine. However, according to his doctor’s advice and his own medical understanding, he is “naturally immunized” after having the virus last January.

Higgins, R-Port Barre, said his office has “aggressively promoted” the availability of vaccines, but he opposes mandating vaccines on the federal level.

“I want every American who wants a vaccine to get it,” he said. “It should be available, and it should be free.”

While the process to develop the existing COVID-19 vaccines was “scientifically sound,” Higgins said he doesn’t know the difference between a good and bad vaccine.

“You can’t turn on the TV without seeing a commercial saying, ‘If you took this drug for treatment of that … you could be entitled to a cash reward,’ ” he said. “Whatever drugs you’re taking right now, it’s almost guaranteed to be on TV in five years with an attorney saying that.”

Higgins said his wife, Becca, also had COVID-19 last January. His father-in-law died from complications related to COVID-19 in December.

Higgins, 59, said he wants the entire at-risk population to access the vaccine before he does. He said he opposed members of Congress having priority access to the vaccine and refused to take part.

“Our nurses, doctors and eldery and Americans with underlying health conditions need to be first in line,” Higgins said.

“It’s a decision of a free American, regarding what they believe is in their best interest for themselves and their family from a health perspective and the advice of their own doctor,” he said.

A March 31 report from the Louisiana Department of Health showed a 10.63 percent vaccination rate in Region 5, which includes Southwest Louisiana. It was the lowest of any region statewide. Higgins said that isn’t surprising because the region is still reeling from Hurricanes Laura and Delta and the recent freeze.

Hurricane response

Higgins said he was stunned at the magnitude of Hurricane Laura’s destruction upon arriving in Lake Charles the morning after its Aug. 27 landfall. He said pictures or videos cannot show the extent of Laura’s devastation to the rest of the nation.

“You have to see it,” he said.

Higgins said he flew all of his staff from Washington D.C. in to help immediately after the storm. A mobile center was set up for three months.

“We came in every day with fuel, food generators, clothes, diapers, chainsaws, and we just didn’t stop,” he said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to evacuate residents to hotels in various cities like New Orleans and Houston was made with “the best intentions,” Higgins said. However, it has made recovery impossible for those still displaced.

“People find themselves 150 miles away,” he said. “How are you going to work on your house or your business?”

Higgins recently came under fire during a local meeting March 29, with North Lake Charles residents criticizing his lack of response in the months after the hurricanes.

Homeless population

What looks to be a rise in the homeless population after the hurricanes is more likely a concentration of the area’s existing homeless issue, Higgins said.

Higgins said his time in law enforcement, which included eight years working the night shift, gave him a unique perspective of the homeless population. He said the homeless population is more visible at night.

“The places where they used to blend in are (now) closed,” he said. “It’s like all day is night shift. What you’re seeing is the kind of thing that has always been there, but it’s just exposed.”

“If you go into those areas where folks are encamped, you’ll find that many were homeless prior to the storms. We can’t find a family that’s actually living in a tent because they don’t have any other options.”

Higgins said the hurricanes have heightened the community’s awareness of the homeless problem.

Housing  

Working with FEMA is a challenge without the hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, Higgins said. He said FEMA and other federal “alphabet agencies,” such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are, by design, “thick with bureaucratic insensitivities.”

Higgins said he helped negotiate a deal to provide 300 temporary housing units in Sulphur and credited FEMA for paying 33 percent above their historic payment ceiling.

The hurricanes have been a learning experience for Higgins and his staff, he said.

“We’ve never been through a storm like this,” he said.

Interstate 10 bridge

Higgins said part of the $5 billion Louisiana is set to receive from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package should go toward the backlog of infrastructure improvements, including the Interstate 10-Calcasieu River bridge.

Higgins said he does not oppose using a P3 public-private partnership to fund a new I-10 bridge, if local and state officials and residents support it. He said locals should be exempt from having to pay tolls on a new bridge.

Higgins said he is confident that 80-90 percent of the cost of building a new I-10 bridge can come from the federal level.

“None of us have lost sight of getting a bridge done,” he said. “I feel pretty good about breaking ground on a bridge while I’m still in office, and I’m not going to stay in office forever.”