Lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills aimed at diluting the powers of the state health officer and providing more legislative, gubernatorial and municipal oversight of public-health orders.
Meanwhile, the state’s COVID-19 infection numbers improved again this week. For seven consecutive days, there were fewer than 50 hospitalizations statewide, the first time that’s happened since October.
Prompted by these trends, Gov. Mark Gordon relaxed restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, as well as capacity limits for sporting events, artistic performances, restaurants and gyms. Gordon extended the statewide face covering order. The new orders will go into effect Monday.
“We are making good progress against this virus,” Gordon said in a press release.
The health-related bills could see action when lawmakers reconvene for the remainder of the 2021 Legislative session, currently slated to begin March 1 in Cheyenne and online.
One of the measures, House Bill 98 – Public health orders-reforms, includes a spate of changes to state health orders and the role of the state health officer. It would require the governor to sign public health orders for them to be effective, limit health orders to 10 days unless ratified by the Legislature, and require local government bodies such as county commissions to ratify orders issued by their local health officers. It would also require that the state health officer, who is appointed by the Department of Health director, also be confirmed by the Wyoming Senate. “The governor may remove the state health officer at his [sic] discretion,” the bill reads.
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who sponsored the bill, wrote in an email that in current state statutes, “there are no checks and balances over the state health officer’s powers.” This bill would create oversight over the position, he wrote.
“Overnight, the state health officer became the most powerful person in the state without any oversight from the citizens of Wyoming,” he wrote.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist has indeed been thrust into the spotlight since the pandemic began, issuing health orders, coordinating the state’s response and approving or rejecting variances. She and Gov. Mark Gordon have maintained that health decisions were made collaboratively.
Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) sponsored another bill related to health orders, House Bill 113 – Public health orders-limitations.
HB 113 proposes fewer changes than in Gray’s proposal. It requires the governor to sign all public health orders, and gives local governments more involvement when a state health emergency is declared by mandating that those bodies ratify health orders that exceed 30 days.
“I brought the bill as I think there needs to be some discussion where local government fits into all of this,” Harshman told WyoFile. “One thing we learned was that locals really don’t have any say other than to ask the Department of Health for variances.”
Lawmakers have introduced at least three other bills in that vein, including one that would establish a pandemic response review task force.
During the March session, in-person participants and observers will be required to wear masks and social distance, and some participants will be vaccinated.
During a legislative leadership press conference this week, Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said his No. 1 priority will be protecting legislative staff in the Capitol.
“I’m hopeful that … everyone takes their part in being responsible to protect each other,” Barlow said. “I will be the one that sets the example for how we should be acting and reminds members as we go.”
The state’s vaccine rollout continues, with just over 10% of the population having received a first dose.
The state has received 77,975 total first doses and 39,700 second doses, according to the DOH.
As of Thursday, health workers had administered 62,695 first doses, the DOH reports, including 12,836 in the past week. Some 20,859 second doses had been administered.
Wyoming’s COVID-19 metrics improved on almost all fronts this week.
Known active cases dipped to 807 by Friday morning, down 24% from last week, and hospitalizations held steady under 50, hitting 45 by Thursday. The Department of Health reported 23 COVID-19 related deaths, three fewer than last week, bringing the state’s total to 647.
All told, Wyoming has tallied 45,155 lab-confirmed infections. That includes just 307 new cases this week, a very small weekly growth, though that number was tweaked slightly when the DOH made data adjustments.
According to a Feb. 7 weekly report issued by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, five Wyoming counties are in the “red” zone for infections, down one from the week before. They are Teton, Carbon, Bighorn, Converse and Sublette.
Crook and Hot Springs Counties, meanwhile, reported zero active cases this week.
The pandemic’s economic fallout, however, continues to be grave. The 2020 cancellation of Cheyenne Frontier Days cost that organization $3.33 million in revenue, the Cheyenne Tribune Eagle reports. Wyoming 211, a statewide helpline that provides referral services, reports a 280% increase in calls for rental assistance in 2020, according to a press release from Gordon’s office. And from second quarter 2019 to second quarter 2020, Wyoming lost more than 26,000 jobs and total payroll fell by $216.5 million, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.