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.
“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!”
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.