Who would have thought the debate over Wyoming’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be defined by two University of Pennsylvania graduates?

Luckily, a school stint in Philadelphia is the only academic or professional similarity shared by this pair of pandemic players. 

One is Alexia Harrist, a board-certified pediatrician who is Wyoming’s state public health officer. After earning a bachelor of science degree at Yale, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and became a Ph.D. in neuroscience at its Graduate School of Education.

The other is Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who received bachelor’s degrees from Penn’s Wharton School of Business and School of Arts and Sciences.

Gray’s day job is hosting a conservative talk show at his daddy’s radio station. Somehow, he seems to believe, legislators like himself with no medical training should hold Harrist “accountable” for her decisions.

If I want to hear the latest right-wing political talking points — which I don’t — I’d tune in to Gray’s radio program. But when I’m looking for expertise on making Wyoming a safer place during the worst public health crisis in more than a century — which I most assuredly do — I’ll turn to Harrist every time.

Several bills this session address the state health officer’s duties, but House Bill 98 – Public health orders-reforms, sponsored by Gray, proposes the most comprehensive, systematic dismantling of Harrist’s office.

That’s not surprising, given Gray’s objection to the health orders issued by Harrist and Gov. Mark Gordon since COVID-19 hit Wyoming a year ago. He opposes the statewide mask mandate, which Gray describes as one of the state’s many “unconstitutional, out of control and arbitrary orders.”

HB 98’s most controversial and ludicrous change would limit any order imposed by the state health officer to 10 days. The Legislature could consider ratifying any order beyond that expiration date, but only in 10-day increments.

Since the Legislature only meets for 40 days in odd-numbered years and 20 days in even-numbered ones, what happens when a state health order is issued when lawmakers are not in session? If lawmakers decide to punt on the issue during the interim, HB 98 would allow the governor to extend the initial order by seven days. But that could only happen if the state’s chief executive agrees to call a special session of the Legislature.

Wyoming doesn’t have many lawmakers with medical credentials. Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette) is a retired physician, and Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) is a physician assistant.

Because his patients hardly ever wear masks (except in cute Facebook videos) I’m not going to count veterinarian and House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette).

Truth be told, though, I’d much rather get medical advice from Barlow than any of the lawyers, teachers, professors, ranchers, engineers, preachers, social workers, retirees and others who serve in the Legislature. He said he will set an example of the responsible way to legislate during a pandemic, and I believe him. Except when he’s in the speaker’s chair addressing the chamber, which allows him to socially distance from others, I’ve always seen him wearing a mask.

I can’t imagine putting the Legislature in charge of deciding what measures to take during a state health emergency. My fear — and I think I’m on solid ground here — is that Gray knows the collective answer would be “none.”

Gray, after all, was a featured speaker at an anti-mask, anti-Gordon rally in front of the Capitol in January that featured organizer and former Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) and others foolishly setting fire to a pile of masks. Fortunately, a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper was on hand to put out the small blaze.

Gray told the crowd the state health officer has become “the most powerful person in our state,” but lacks any accountability.

Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) speaks to hundreds gathered for a Stop the Steal rally Jan. 6, 2021, outside the Wyoming State Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

“The media today want to tell us this is not a big deal,” Gray said. “That’s been their lie for the last 10 months, but this stuff adds up.”

What terrible situation could it all lead to? The answer may be the biggest whopper Gray has told in his political life. “Before you know it, we’ve lost our constitutional republic,” he said.

Really? Our republic could be kaput if a state health officer like Harrist says we need to wear masks to help prevent people from inadvertently killing one another through the transmission of COVID-19?

Do we have to kiss our cherished democratic institutions goodbye if a bar or restaurant can’t operate at full capacity for a while?

Gee, I guess our way of life is much more fragile than I’ve been led to believe.

My criticism of Harrist and Gordon comes from a much different political direction. I think both officials waited too long to issue a statewide mask mandate, which didn’t happen until December, after two-thirds of counties individually took such action.

I also believe the pair should have issued a stay-at-home order in March, when Wyoming was one of eight states that failed to do so. 

Overall, though, Harrist has weathered the incessant storm of right-wing criticism rather well. She’s generally made decisions based on science and evidence-based health risks to Wyomingites.

Contrast her approach with the bombastic claim by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) at the Clem-organized Capitol protest that Gordon is a “criminal” for not allowing the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The malaria drug was ballyhooed by former President Donald Trump for its alleged healing powers, but a National Institute of Health study in November found that it provided no benefits to adults who were hospitalized after contracting the virus.

Harrist is a former epidemic service officer at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Bouchard, who called for her to resign or be fired, once ran a state gun rights’ group.

Bouchard has his own health bill, Senate File 95 – Election of state health officer, which would make Harrist’s position political and subject to recall by voters.

As much as I believe legislators like Gray and Bouchard are unqualified to make policy decisions about how the state health officer does the job, I really don’t want to see voters take on the challenge of electing an official to make life-or-death health decisions.

I imagine the winner would run commercials promising that if elected, there would be “no mask mandates or business closures — ever!”

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It’s a terrible idea, but not the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard a legislator say about the pandemic. No, that utterance belongs to Clem who, before he left office, compared Harrist’s tempered response to the virus to “pulling out a .45 revolver and shooting a fly with it.” He also claimed last summer that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu.

Clem may be gone, but the anti-mask apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it came to his successor in House District 31, Republican Rep. John Bear. He’s a co-sponsor of Gray’s HB 98, and when lawmakers gathered in the House during the kick-off of the 66h Legislature in January, neither Gray nor Bear wore masks even though the state’s mask mandate was in effect at the Capitol.

In this tale of two Ivy League graduates, one is doing her best to keep Wyoming residents healthy and safe. The other thinks he’s saving the republic by diminishing the state health officer’s ability to do her job, while defiantly flouting the rules she’s put in place.

Harrist and Gordon have extended the statewide mask mandate until at least March 15. I hope by that time both HB 98 and SF 95 are on the scrapheap of dead bills, where they belong.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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11 Comments

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  1. Mr. Drake,
    You of all people should know about education. As you know a BS is just bull s41t, an MS is just more s41t and a Phd is just piled higher and deeper. Before anyone gets all upset, I have a BS in Science, lack some credits for an MS in biology, Associates degree in Electronics and Computer Engineering. Me, I’m just a dumb ol farm boy that sees through all of the government nonsense. Having a degree or more doesn’t make you an expert. Just so you know, the definition of an expert: ex is a has been and xpert is a drip under pressure. Just from your articles it is very easy to see that you are very liberal. Well, I hope you are happy with the job that the current President is doing.

  2. You cant make this plandemic up……. Mother has been in lockdown for the last 12 months! She is 87. Probably has only a few years left, and these clowns have a lockdown taking what is left of her last few years. Folks there is a difference of death from covid, and death WITH covid. Look at the depression, suicides, drug abuse, domestic strife, and damage to the economy……. Do i really live in a state of this type of circus going on? REALLY?

  3. i can’t believe that, even in this backwards place, we are having to have this discussion.

  4. Politicians not wanting to listen to public health advice is nothing new. I know from my own experience. A lot of the measures are pretty simple, wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing. Others not so simple, closing bars, restaurants, limiting gatherings etc. I think that if the majority did the simple things there would be more room to ease up on the hard things. Politicians like Chuck Gray are annoying and just plain not smart but that’s who we are stuck with it seems. By the way most people don’t know how well educated veterinarians are. Just as well educated as your physician. Their patients can’t tell them what’s wrong or where it hurts along with not even belonging to a single
    species.

  5. Mr. Drake,
    I have only recently discovered the Wyofile. It’s become a valuable and informative read for me. I espeically like your opinion pieces – especially when they agree with my own opinion. We all have bias but I do think I am learning how to better balance my own and the Wyofil is helping me as I become more interested in the governance Wyoming. Born and raised here at 70 its about time I should. I feel bad I have not paid more attention until now.

    More people should know about what Mr. Gray is saying an doing. Not many do so I am happy to pass this article on to others who might learn of what is going on for the first time and look up more information not just rely on your account but sometimes it takes a person like yourself who is paying attention to get them going so I thank you for this as well.

    Adding this because I think it is relevant in comparison to Gray’s worldview and the worldview and actions of some others in our legislature again I came the infomation via the Wyofile.

    Excerpts from he Article:
    “Gov. Mark Gordon — who himself contracted COVID-19 in November
    Gordon’s staff “ isolated from one another after being exposed to a staffer in the office who had recently contracted the virus.”
    Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper had a “serious bout with the virus earlier this year.”.
    Jim Anderson, (R-Casper) — worked through interim committee work from home while grappling with symptoms.
    One House lawmaker— Rep. Roy Edwards, (R-Gillette) — died from complications of the virus in November
    “The virus’ presence has also seeped into the policies the body is considering… And the state Legislature prepared to ratify tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts drafted in response to the crisis the pandemic had wrought.
    “It takes a strong mind to know the balance between your values, to know the values of your neighbors, know the values that represent the state of Wyoming,” Rep. Mike Greear, (R-Worland), said in a speech on the House floor Monday morning. “It takes a strong mind in this political environment. It takes a strong mind not to listen to the loudest voices. Listen to that inner voice.”
    “It now falls on the 66th Legislature to come up with its own solutions. Which survive and which fail will become apparent in the coming weeks.
    “Some will rise. Some will fall. Some will be gut-wrenching,” Barlow said. “So let’s continue to listen, learn and consider possibilities and, most important, take care of each other.”
    {excerpt from “A virus hangs over the Capitol | WyoFile”]

    Mr. Gray burns masks. And I think along with it good sense and his reveals not a Christian centered informed worldview because this action alone reveals no desire to care about me. It is good to see however our Wyoming Legislature has members who deeply care and show grand leadership.

    My best regards,
    Ellen Jervis

  6. I remember years ago, the late Dick Sadler wrote an editorial about the disruptive and divisive Chuck Grey. He sure was right about that. Sadly, Wyoming has become the dumping ground for right wing hillbillies and members of the Christian Taliban. When a political office opens up for election, the flies swarm. Come on Wyoming, you can do far better than this!

    1. Well, I hope you’re right, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against your assertion.

      After walking my dog, and myself, this morning, I returned to find a “sex offender living close by” notice (complete with poor guy’s record, and address) stuck in my what-would-be-a-mailbox-in-a-normal-town. The town guvamint said twarn’t them who left it, so I called the number for the sheriff.

      Any state that would enact laws mandating such handbills–after a person has served the sentence–doesn’t have much of a future in my opinion. Sadly, that includes most of this sorry country, as it marches blindly and dumbly, not to mention willingly, to full police-state fascism.

  7. How dare our elected representatives want to check the power of an unelected health officer who went to Yale? Those rubes don’t get it: when we are in a perpetual state of emergency, only the highly educated experts get to decide what we can and can’t do. Don’t like it? Boo hoo.

    Kerry, we all know that the people you don’t like are gaining power in this state. You just want to use this pandemic to rule over us and make us miserable. Enjoy your pesky power while it lasts, not that us citizens are obeying your stupid dictators anyway.

    1. I’ll take health and science information from actual doctors and people with a science background.

      You are welcome to take your health advice from politicians with no background or experience. But, criticizing others for not being as gullible as you are is a bit extreme. Wouldn’t you agree?

      1. Taking advice and info from scientists? Always.

        Letting them run our lives for indefinite periods of time? Never.