UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional comments sent to WyoFile by Rep. Roy Edwards’ son Mitch Edwards, who wrote that the Edwards family had not attended any of the church services or gatherings described in the reporting. —Ed.
Videos and social media posts indicate COVID-19 infections reached the congregation of a church headed by one state lawmaker and attended by Rep. Roy Edwards, who died Monday while hospitalized in Casper.
In a series of online addresses to the Central Baptist Church of Gillette between late October and early November, Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) described COVID-19’s increasing presence in the congregation he leads.
“We have so many people in our church who are sick and ill with COVID-19 and so we want to just be very very careful,” Clem said in an Oct. 28 video. He also discussed Edwards’ hospitalization at that time.
“Many of you know he [Edwards] is in the hospital there in Casper,” Clem said later in that video. “He is in stable condition but last I heard wasn’t necessarily improving and so he’s there in the ICU and so we really want to lift him up and then others in our church as well who have COVID.”
Five days later, on Nov. 2, Edwards died. Clem did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Officials and Edwards’ family have not disclosed the cause of death.
“I think right now the family is deciding whether or not to release any information regarding Roy’s medical illness,” Edwards’ son Mitch said when reached by phone on Friday. “We will do so on our own time and when we think it’s appropriate.”
Death certificates, which include a cause of death, are not public record, according to Vital Statistics Services, a branch of the Wyoming Department of Health.
Health measure opponents
Clem and Edwards were close politically, personally and in their faith. “Part of my involvement in state politics was because of Roy,” Clem wrote in a Nov. 2 Facebook post. “He was a political mentor I looked up to, and someone who I frequently talked to. I can remember driving to Casper with Roy for the Republican caucus after that first election, still with the buzz of excitement over our election wins. We talked for hours.”
Since the pandemic’s start, Clem and Edwards have both stridently opposed government measures to quell the virus’s spread. Clem has labeled public health orders as government overreach, introduced a failed bill to limit the authority of public health officers and suggested influenza is more deadly than COVID-19. The novel coronavirus has killed far more people in Wyoming than influenza this year.
In September, Clem was one of a number of lawmakers who questioned Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist at a legislative committee meeting. Edwards was also part of that questioning. Edwards echoed unfounded conservative talking points that the virus’s impact was overblown for political reasons and would vanish after the November election.
“It wasn’t as significant as we first thought it was,” Clem told WyoFile in September. “Not to say that it wasn’t significant, not to say it wasn’t dangerous.”
But, “people take calculated risks every single day,” he said. “It’s government and the media going a certain direction and the public is looking at it logically and going a different direction.”
Campbell County has since become one of the state’s virus hotspots.
By as early as Oct. 18, virus infections were present in Clem’s congregation.
In two videos of church services posted online that day, Clem talked about having a number of sick congregants. “There is a lot of sick folks and I’m sure that some of it actually probably is COVID related,” he said. He named at least one churchgoer who had tested positive.
Clem also referenced a social gathering the night before in the videos, labeling it a success with a “good turnout.”
In an Oct. 21 post from the church’s Facebook account, Clem wrote that the congregation had two confirmed cases. “I suspect we have many more,” he wrote, and asked people who were sick to stay home.
Clem posted a video of a pre-recorded sermon online that day, since some in his congregation were staying away from the church. “I saw the church chat was just going wild,” he said in the video. “A lot of people are sick and just staying at home and taking precautions and I think that is wonderful.”
Clem encouraged people to stay home if sick but also said that “colds come and go.”
“Honestly folks I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m not filled with anxiety or care or anything like that.”
The church also posted a video of an in-church service that day. The video does not show how many people attended, but in it Clem tells the congregation he is “pleasantly surprised” by attendance.
“I wasn’t sure how many people we were going to have tonight and we have a good little crowd,” Clem said.
On Oct. 23, a post appeared on the church account citing confirmed positive cases and cancelling a service and Sunday school classes, but keeping one service scheduled.
“A great number of people in our congregation have fallen ill, including at least 4 people who have tested positive for COVID-19,” the post read. “I suspect a great number of those who are currently ill may have this virus.”
Edwards was hospitalized the night of Oct. 23, according to a report from the Gillette News Record. The Edwards family had not attended the church services or social gatherings described above, Mitch Edwards wrote to WyoFile.
On Oct. 27, Clem announced he was moving services online for the time being.
On Oct. 28, Clem posted the video where he discussed Edwards’ hospitalization. Some of the sick churchgoers “were having a real rough go,” Clem said in that video.
In an Oct. 31 email to the other members of the Wyoming Legislature, Clem wrote that Edwards had been airlifted to the Wyoming Medical Center. “As many of you know, Representative Edwards was flown to Casper last week,” Clem wrote in the email. “His condition has not improved and this morning it sounds like he is to be intubated.”
Intubation is a medical procedure where a tube is inserted through a patient’s mouth in order to place him or her on a ventilator. The procedure is often utilized with critically ill COVID-19 patients, as the virus overwhelms the respiratory system.
Edwards’ wife hoped for prayers from Edwards’ lawmaker colleagues, but also privacy, Clem wrote. “The media has been fishing for information, which she really doesn’t want disclosed,” he wrote.
On Nov. 1, Clem led the church in praying “for a miracle” for Edwards. “Really we need that,” he said in a video that day. “There’s a multitude of people in our church who have gotten this disease,” Clem said. “We pray for others who are sick in our church, so many people with COVID.” He went on to name seven individuals and a family. Others were sick as well, Clem said.
On Monday, Nov. 2, Clem wrote lawmakers to inform them of Edwards’ death. “It’s with a heavy heart that I tell you Roy Edwards went home to glory. He passed at about 10:30 this morning,” Clem wrote.
Gov. Mark Gordon ordered the Wyoming state flag flown at half mast on the Capitol and in Campbell County. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” the governor said in a statement.
A number of Wyoming politicians offered condolences online and hailed Edwards’ career in public service. “Roy was as rock solid conservative as you could find,” Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) wrote on Facebook. “No need to lobby him one way or the other — Roy stayed true to his values — always. You will be missed.”
Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) wrote that “I didn’t always agree with him politically but I NEVER heard a negative word out of his mouth. I will miss shaking his hand and giving him a hard time.”
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney posted her condolences to Twitter. “Phil and I were deeply saddened by the news of State Representative Roy Edwards’ passing,” she wrote. “Roy was a friend to all that knew him, and he never knew a stranger.” Phil is Philip Perry, Cheney’s husband and former general counsel for U.S. Homeland Security.
The Wyoming Republican Party also honored Edwards online. “Roy was a true servant of the people and recognized who he worked for when serving at all levels of government for over thirty years,” the party posted to its Facebook page.