Science should guide Wyoming’s response to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, not politics — especially when the disease is causing record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
Unfortunately, the Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee requires a cult-like adherence to its simplistic ideology, facts, science and lives be damned. For that high-priesthood of zealots it’s always about politics.
The GOP’s far-right state leaders recently passed a resolution asking Gov. Mark Gordon to rescind his declaration of a state emergency and with it the authority for public-health orders. The resolution says those orders were intended only “to ‘flatten the curve’ to ensure our medical capabilities were not overcome in the short run before additional resources could be prepared.”
The party’s demand is both monumentally stupid and dangerously unhinged. But I think one word best describes the committee’s action: heartless.
Do Republicans at the top of the state party’s food chain live in a bubble, where they are force-fed soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump’s lies about the novel coronavirus? Do they seriously believe that the nation is “rounding the turn” on COVID-19, as Trump erroneously claimed at his mostly mask-free rallies in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election?
“It appears some of our health experts have jumped on some political bandwagon a little too early before enough was known about COVID-19,” Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne told the Cowboy State Daily. “Now some of those facts are coming out and some of those takings of freedom were unjustified.”
In the real world, the rate of infections nationwide is spiraling out of control. More than 255,000 Americans have died, and the number of cases in the U.S. tops 12 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
On Sunday, the CDC reported that Wyoming trailed only North Dakota in its weekly rate of cases, with 136.7 per 100,000 residents. More than 27,000 confirmed and probable cases have been recorded in the Equality State since mid-March, and 176 residents have died.
Casper Star-Tribune reporter Morgan Hughes’ Nov. 21 article movingly depicts how treating dozens of COVID-19 patients is taxing the Wyoming Medical Center’s resources, including the health and well-being of medical professionals working tirelessly to save lives.
Dr. Tim Olson, a hospitalist, told Hughes he can tell when his COVID-19 patients are getting worse just by looking at their faces. “There’s a look of dread and fear in people’s eyes” before they die, he said, “and all of a sudden they’re gone.” Olson said he’s left thinking, “This person didn’t do anything to deserve a death by drowning in their own lung fluid.”
What angers me most about the GOP’s resolution is while it says it’s “regrettable” that people are dying, the committee doesn’t even pretend to care about the great pain, suffering and loss so many Wyoming residents are experiencing. Businesses and “personal freedoms” are all it wants to protect.
The resolution asserts that the overall number of deaths in the state due to infectious diseases “has remained consistent over the past decade.”
Apparently they’re getting their figures from fantasyland. The CDC reports that Wyoming’s death rate since March is 12% “above normal,” which is the seventh highest percentage in the nation. Federal researchers say the nation has suffered 300,000 excess deaths so far this year and may reach 400,000 before we enter 2021.
The GOP even lumped COVID-19 into the same category as the flu. Coronavirus is nothing like the flu. In February, Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is “more deadly than your strenuous flus” and “deadly stuff.” But a month later the president tweeted that while thousands of Americans die from the flu each year, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy goes on.” Influenza-related illnesses caused an estimated 15 deaths in the state last year.
Eathorne ran with Trump’s theme in his CSD interview. “This is just a disease with a new name and a whole lot of media attention, but it’s not really changing the situation in Wyoming,” he said. “We seem to be going to a lot of lengths to flatten the curve and it is not working.”
Here’s the resolution’s inane, poorly worded message to Gordon: “The ongoing State of Emergency has proved to be worse than the cure which that has been imposed by the state’s restrictions on the right of individuals and business owners to make a living in support themselves and their families continues to greatly damage the citizens and economy of the Great State of Wyoming.”
What compelled the committee on Nov. 14 to tell the governor that the state of emergency he declared eight months ago must go?
It’s because Gordon, who has stubbornly refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, held a press conference the day before where he chided “knuckleheads” for refusing to accept personal responsibility and follow the CDC’s guidelines to wear masks, maintain social distance and wash their hands.
“There will be changes,” Gordon promised. “They will be more restrictive. We are looking at every aspect of what we can do.”
If the governor did look at every aspect of health risks, a mask mandate sailed right by him. The new orders Gordon issued on Nov. 19 reduced indoor gatherings to 25 people without restrictions, and outdoors to 250.
Wyoming is one of only 13 states that do not have statewide mask mandates. All of them are led by Republican governors.
“If most Americans pulled together to do the right thing and wore a mask in public, this simple, selfless act would save more than 130,000 lives in the next few months alone,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in a recent blog post.
Despite his threats to take us all to the woodshed if we don’t start behaving better and get this disease under control, Gordon once again ducked his responsibility to protect the public.
The governor was given political cover by 15 counties and the Wind River Indian Reservation, which have enacted local mask mandates. Gordon can say he didn’t have to use the heavy hand of his office to tell people what to do. He can blame it on those other guys, namely county health officers, and maybe his party will leave him alone.
What’s wrong with that buck-passing approach is that a statewide mandate would convince more Wyomingites to actually wear masks. No one wants to put people in jail for noncompliance, but a governor’s order would send a clear message to all that not wearing a mask is socially and legally unacceptable. His leadership would save lives.
President-Elect Joe Biden criticized GOP governors like Gordon and asked, “Does anybody understand why a governor would turn this into a political statement? It’s about patriotism. … It’s about saving lives, for real.”
I realize Biden was thumped by Trump in Wyoming, 70% to 26%, so the GOP committee thinks its opposition to health and safety measures is wholeheartedly embraced by rank-and-file members.
I don’t believe it is. A University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll earlier this month found more than 60% of state residents support requiring people to wear a face mask in indoor public places. In this red state, that majority must include a lot of Republicans.
The mask advocate ranks even include party stalwarts like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
This is Gordon’s new political reality: He effectively capitulated to the will of the committee by doing nothing in his new orders to impact businesses or restrict residents’ so-called “right” to infect others by not taking even the simplest, common-sense health and safety precautions.
But he didn’t rescind his original emergency order, so the power-hungry state committee — which has never trusted Gordon as a “true” conservative — will single him out for retribution. He can expect at least one far-right primary opponent in 2022, and maybe more.
It will be up to Gordon to convince voters he’s done everything he could to stop the spread of coronavirus in Wyoming. Without a mask mandate that should have been issued months ago, though, why should anyone believe him?