The Goshen County commission passed a resolution Tuesday to urge its constituents to make their own health decisions and indicating it opposes health orders, both at a county and state level, that have been instituted to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The resolution, which is nonbinding and was described by the commission’s chairman as a statement of support for local residents, passed unanimously in a county with just 19 total coronavirus cases. The document encourages residents to “refrain from any county-level virus-related mandates concerning individual health care decisions.”
John Ellis, the county commission’s chairman, told the Star-Tribune that the commission knew they couldn’t violate state orders — like those currently in place that institute certain hygiene, mask and social distancing requirements. The resolution, he said, was intended to support the county’s residents and send a message that there had been overreach by state officials.
“Anytime anybody comes out, an elected official, and says, ‘They have to do this and do that,’ (that person) is violating his oath of office as far as the Wyoming Constitution is concerned,” Ellis said. “We want him to know we’re not doing that.”
Ellis laid the blame for what he described as the “overblown” response squarely at the feet of the state Health Department; Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, has ultimate statutory authority over public health orders. Ellis said that the county’s commissioners would be “100%” behind public health orders if they felt there were a good argument for them.
“People are tired, sick and tired, of it,” he said. Health officials “step on their constitutional rights every time they turn around. Everything they do is, they don’t take into consideration the fact that this one agency is just running over everybody, and it’s you know — it’s time that people started to stand up and say, ‘They better start looking at it and it’s getting serious.’”
Asked about the comments at a Wednesday press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon said he disagreed with the suggestion that he or Harrist had violated the Constitution in their handling of the pandemic. He called himself a “staunch advocate” for the Constitution and said that every order had stayed on the right side of that document.
Gordon said that while it was understandable that individuals want to make their own decisions, he noted that residents needed to realize that their decisions affect their neighbors. It’s a similar comment to one made by a Natrona County health official last month, who told the school board here that while they may be OK with risk, they can’t put the public at risk.
Gordon pointed to the spike in Uinta County as an example of how quickly the virus can spread when public health recommendations are flouted.
“In the Uinta Case, the individual didn’t feel well, they went to get tested, then went from the test to the bar and we suddenly had a huge surge of cases in Uinta County,” he said. “Wyoming citizens for most part aren’t going to do that.”
He said that Goshen County has been “relatively lucky” when it comes to the virus, but he warned that unwinding orders too soon — and the orders currently in place are far looser than those instituted four months ago — could lead to shutdowns. He said a governor in another state used an expletive when describing the rapid spread of the disease there last month. He then quoted a sign he said he saw in Torrington, the seat of Goshen County.
“There’s a sign that says, ‘Freedom is the right to be wrong but not the right to do wrong,’” Gordon said.
Harrist, who was implicitly the target of Ellis’s ire, said her office worked with the state Attorney General’s Office on all health orders to ensure they’re on the right side of the law.
“It is my duty as state health officer to protect the public health,” she said, “and I’m just trying to do the right thing to protect people.”
Ellis said that there was no conclusive scientific proof that any of the social distancing or mask recommendations actually worked. While it is true, as Ellis pointed out, that information about the virus changes day to day, an increasing amount of research supports the need to wear masks. Robert Redford, the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that he thought the virus could be controlled within eight weeks if there was nationwide mask adoption.
A study in the Journal of American Medicine indicated that wearing surgical masks slowed the spread of the virus among health care workers in Massachusetts. Another study at Florida Atlantic University came to similar conclusions. Results from that study showed any face masks — even bandanna-style coverings — were effective. The better the mask — the more layers included — the more effective it was.
“Importantly, uncovered emulated coughs were able to travel noticeably farther than the currently recommended 6-foot distancing guideline,” researchers said. “Without a mask, droplets traveled more than 8 feet; with a bandanna, they traveled 3 feet, 7 inches; with a folded cotton handkerchief, they traveled 1 foot, 3 inches; with the stitched quilting cotton mask, they traveled 2.5 inches; and with the cone-style mask, droplets traveled about 8 inches.”
There are further anecdotal examples. According to the Wall Street Journal, two Missouri hair stylists “served 139 clients in May before testing positive for coronavirus. According to a recent report published by the CDC, both wore either a double-layered cotton or surgical mask, and nearly all clients who were interviewed reported wearing masks the entire time.” No symptoms were identified in any of their 139 clients. All 67 who were willing to be tested were negative for the virus.
In any case, the Goshen County resolution, even if it were binding, is largely symbolic; state orders supersede local orders. Ellis acknowledged this while repeatedly venting frustration with the overall response to the pandemic.
As other critics of the pandemic’s response have before him, Ellis said more Wyomingites have died on the state’s highways than have succumbed to the virus. But, as he acknowledged, far more people drive in Wyoming than have contracted the virus. He said there was an argument on both sides of every issue.
He said he didn’t really believe that the reason the number of cases in Goshen County — and in Wyoming in general — were low because of the success of public health orders. Harrist and Gordon have both acknowledged the inherent problem of successful orders within a resistant populace: When the orders work, they make it seem like they were overblown and not necessary to begin with.
Still, Ellis stood by the resolution’s intent of standing behind Goshen County residents and their ability to make decisions for themselves.
“We as Goshen County commissioners are trying to help our people, and we want it to be fair,” he said. “We don’t want any of this political stuff that goes on, that one person says this and one person says that. We strongly believe our people have the right to make their own decision and they’re not being allowed to do it, and we’re behind them 100% in that respect.”