We’re not out of the woods yet. But so far, 2021 has brought some good news to Wyoming as it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Case numbers, hospitalizations and weekly death tolls are all down significantly from their high points late last year. Here in Laramie County, active cases are down from a pandemic high of 1,689 on Nov. 23 to just 53 on Feb. 9. And the 14-day rolling average of coronavirus tests that came back positive has dropped from 14.56% on Dec. 4 to 1.56% on Feb. 13.
Statewide, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 were down to 31 on Thursday after hitting a pandemic high of 247 on Nov. 30.
Those numbers don’t mean we can throw caution to the wind and party like it’s 1999. But it’s worth celebrating that the steps we’ve been taking – wearing masks in public, maintaining social distancing, washing hands frequently and staying home when sick – are working.
So why do some state legislators want to inject themselves into the process of protecting their constituents from this and future outbreaks? What makes them think they’re smarter than the scientists and public health experts who are studying the virus and tracking the numbers every day?
Just because they’re frustrated with steps taken over the past 11 months by Gov. Mark Gordon, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and county-level health officials to reduce the virus’s spread doesn’t make them qualified to decide how to keep people healthy. In fact, we suspect they would opt for very few restrictions, and if more people died as a result, oh well.
That’s because while we were expressing our displeasure with the governor for not being restrictive enough, these folks were inaccurately claiming the orders that limited gathering sizes and closed or restricted certain businesses were unconstitutional. And when Gov. Gordon finally imposed a statewide mask mandate on Dec. 9 due to record numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and rising death tolls, they and their supporters held a demonstration in front of the Capitol in which some people tried to burn the very masks that have been proven to save lives.
Apparently, it doesn’t matter to these lawmakers that a colleague who openly rejected the recommended precautionary measures died after contracting the virus.
Rather than supporting the success of these measures, they want to pass legislation that would require them to ratify any health order that would be in effect for more than 10 days. They want to restrict the authority of the state health officer, and either require their appointment to be approved by the Senate or make them an elected official subject to recall. And they want county commissioners to be able to opt out of statewide orders.
These elected officials and many of their constituents are the same people who fell prey to the politicization of public health under the previous president. They love to poke fun at Dr. Anthony Fauci and other national experts for changing their recommendations related to masks, even though that’s exactly how science works – you keep studying things like COVID-19 until you fully understand how to fight it off, and you adjust safety precautions as you gain new insight along the way.
Which brings us to the fundamental question: What is the government’s role in keeping us healthy?
We believe the first step is limiting the spread of potentially deadly pathogens. If that means mandating masks in public places, so be it. If that means temporarily closing certain types of businesses, fine, but make sure owners are compensated so they and their employees don’t suffer financially.
It also means providing help to those responsible for conducting widespread testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution. With each of these activities, it needs to be “all hands on deck,” whether that means shifting staff from other state agencies, activating National Guard members or some other method.
Next, we need to have confidence that the information about the health threat and the numbers tracking its spread are reliable. Again, that means ensuring the departments responsible for these things are staffed sufficiently.
Lastly – and this is likely the most difficult one – is the question of enforcement. What penalties should be imposed on those who choose to defy the orders at the local, state or federal level? Should restaurants be fined, closed or have their liquor license taken away? Should business owners face stiff fines and/or jail time? What about individuals who continue to enter public buildings without a mask?
It would be nice if we didn’t have to ask those last questions because everyone trusted the guidance offered by doctors and scientists – even as it changes based on new findings.
But the bills to be considered by the Wyoming Legislature next month speak volumes about how far we are from that goal. If you agree, tell lawmakers to stay in their lanes and focus on the bigger issues that demand their attention.
Because if they can’t address the state’s budget crisis, do we really trust them to make good decisions about our health?