Lawmakers returned to the Capitol in Cheyenne this week to resume in-person session work following a year of mostly virtual meetings held to limit the spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 vaccinations ramped up across the state, meanwhile, as the state’s hospitalizations hovered in the 20s and active cases dropped below 600.
The virus hung heavy over the session. Its impact was evident in the new plexiglass shields and quieter hallways, and it threaded its way through the proceedings as a significant foe threatening most aspects of Wyoming’s current and future health.
Gov. Mark Gordon in his State of the State Address devoted several minutes to discussing the upheaval wrought by the pandemic and the state’s response to it, which he touted as “among the best in the nation.”
He pointed to Wyoming’s unemployment rate, which is below the national average, said the state funneled more CARES Act funding proportionally to small businesses than any other and noted that K-12 schools have been conducting in-person classes since August.
He also expressed support for the “steadfast guidance” of State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and Attorney General Bridget Hill, who have played instrumental roles in Wyoming’s COVID-19 response. Harrist in particular has been the target of critics who see government health orders as overreaching.
“I want to thank Dr. Harrist and her team for adhering to the scientific approach they have taken over this past year when, believe me, it could have been much easier to follow politics,” Gordon said. “She embodied the belief that some things are simply not for sale.”
The state’s response and the way those health orders are issued, which have grown increasingly politicized, have inspired several pieces of legislation. One of those bills, Senate File 80 – Public health orders-local and legislative oversight, advanced out of committee Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by freshman Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette), would give the Legislature and local elected bodies like county commissions more oversight over the declaration of public health emergencies and the issuance of state and county health orders.
It would require a 48-hour notice before statewide public health orders go into effect and allow counties to opt out of orders if the majority of commissioners choose to. Also under the bill, no order could be effective for more than 30 days unless ratified by the Legislature. It includes provisions to give local elected bodies, like county commissions and city councils, similar authority over local health orders.
“The main focus of this bill is to take the power out of the executive branch, move it into the legislative branch and push it on further down to the county commissioners and city if need be,” McKeown said during the Senate Labor, Health & Social Services committee meeting.
Renny Mackay, Gordon’s policy director, and Jerimiah Rieman, the executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association , testified to the committee that they favor a different pandemic bill, Senate File 30 – Pandemic review task force. That measure would create a task force to study the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including public health orders, the state health officer and local public health officers’ authorities, schools’ responses and more.
“The governor’s office is supporting Senate File 30 at this time,” Mackay said. “We think that once we can move through this crisis there is a time to look back and make changes as needed across the board.”
Rieman, meanwhile, said for his association to establish a position, it must have 70% of members in favor. The only pandemic bill that garnered that much consensus is the task force bill, he said.
“Some of my members want some of these powers [in SF 80] … others don’t want those powers because they don’t consider themselves public health officers. They really think that that responsibility should reside elsewhere,” Rieman said.
Forming a task force to develop one-size-fits-all measures is not the answer, said McKeown, who called what happened in Wyoming a violation of the state and U.S. Constitutions.
The committee voted 3-2 to advance SF 80, with McKeown, Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Sen. Lynn Hutching (R-Cheyenne) voting in favor. Sen. Dan Furphy (R-Laramie) and committee Chairman Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) voted no. Furphy is wary of restricting the state and county health officers from taking immediate action in case of emergencies like floods or fires. Baldwin cautioned against viewing public health’s entire job through the very specific lens of the pandemic.
“We tend to look at a lot of things through the pandemic right now, and that kind of scares me,” Baldwin said. “I think we make a lot of decisions based on the COVID lens.”
Across the state, meanwhile, Wyoming’s vaccination rollout continued to ramp up. Communities moved further down their 1b priority group lists, making more categories of people, such as the homeless, eligible for vaccination. At the University of Wyoming, students and employees have been helping schedule appointments and administer shots.
As of Thursday, more than 95,000 Wyoming residents had received a first dose, while nearly 55,000 had gotten their second. The state has received 123,820 first doses and 77,045 second doses.
A steady decline of infections has paralleled the vaccination rollout. The state’s low metrics remained steady this week.
Known active cases dipped to 552 by Monday, down 15% from last week. Just 22 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 by Thursday. The Department of Health reported 11 COVID-19 related deaths — two more than last week — bringing the state’s total to 682.
All told, Wyoming has tallied 46,328 lab-confirmed infections. That includes 403 new cases this week.
According to a Feb. 28 weekly report issued by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, just two Wyoming counties remain in the “red” zone for infections. They are Big Horn and Carbon.
“We’re not quite out of the woods yet,” Gordon said in his State of the State speech. “Success will require action from individuals, businesses and our state government, and that’s what I believe this session is about.”
Wyoming, he said, only has one chance “to turn this spring into a bountiful summer.”