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Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist speaks during a news conference with Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, inside the Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. Gordon and Harrist gave COVID-19 updates from Labor Day weekend and the start of the school year. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Wyoming State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist reiterated the need for students to wear masks in schools and then faced criticism from a couple lawmakers on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a virtual meeting Thursday.

In recent weeks, Wyoming public schools have reopened with some precautions in place – specifically, social distancing and, whenever that isn’t possible, wearing masks.

Multiple lawmakers on the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee told Harrist that they’ve heard from many constituents questioning the mask requirement for students in K-12 schools.

In response, Harrist acknowledged there is “a lot we don’t know” regarding COVID-19 transmission in schools, but she emphasized a few points already backed up by research.

“What we know is that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people, and that face coverings are effective in helping to prevent transmission from those infected people to others,” Harrist said.

“What we also know, though, is that 6-foot distancing is the best way to do it,” she continued. “That’s why we always get that as our primary recommendation and face coverings required when that 6 feet of distancing can’t be maintained.”

The question of when Wyoming could get a COVID-19 vaccine was also on lawmakers’ minds Thursday, and Harrist told them to prepare for the possibility of a vaccine not being ready by the Nov. 3 election.

“We’ve been asked by the federal government to endeavor that we are prepared to receive and distribute limited doses of the vaccine by the end of October or beginning of November, but that timeline is, you know, the best possible timeline,” Harrist said. “I think we should all be prepared for it to take longer for a vaccine to be developed, approved and to us in quantities to really do mass vaccination.”

Though some lawmakers thanked Harrist for her service during the state’s first pandemic in more than a century, a few pushed back on some decisions made by her and the Wyoming Department of Health.

Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, drew a comparison that involved the flies that had been bothering Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, in his office throughout the virtual meeting.

“If he were to pull out a .45 revolver and shoot one of those flies, I think we would all agree he’s gone overboard, and that’s kind of how it feels, in my opinion, what we’re doing with COVID-19,” Clem said.

The Gillette lawmaker was joined by another colleague from the area, Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, in questioning the health officer. Edwards asked Harrist what the number was of people that “actually died” from COVID-19 in the state, suggesting some of the recorded deaths were attributable to other incidents, such as a motorcycle crash.

Harrist, in response, confirmed the state’s COVID-19 death count currently stands at 42, as the Wyoming Department of Health has reported on its website.

“(For) every single death among a Wyoming resident that we have reported, a health care provider or the certifying provider or coroner has determined that COVID-19 was a cause or contributor to death,” Harrist said.

“If somebody has COVID-19 and they die in a car accident, is that counted as a COVID-19 death? The answer is no,” Harrist added. “The provider in that category is going to determine that the cause of death was trauma.”

The comments from the Gillette legislators drew some pushback from Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton. The representative from the Northern Arapaho Tribe commended Harrist for implementing the statewide health orders.

“I’d rather err on the side of safety, and by no means do I think that you handle that with a .45 revolver,” said Clifford, who then asked how many more deaths could’ve occurred on the Wind River Reservation without any orders in place.

“We’ll never know” exactly how many COVID-19 cases and deaths were prevented by the orders, Harrist replied, adding to the difficulty of proving how effective they’ve been to skeptics.

“Do I think it would’ve been more deaths (without the orders)? Yes, of course I do,” the health officer said.

Beyond his broader criticisms, Clem also pushed for changes regarding public health orders for residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Initially, the state’s orders largely prohibited visitations to the facilities, though those restrictions were relaxed in June to allow for limited outdoor visits between residents and their loved ones.

“In order to protect their public health, it’s come at the cost of isolation, loneliness – so mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, which also affects physical health (and) a sense they’ve been in a makeshift prison since March,” Clem said.

Harrist said her hope is to further loosen restrictions on nursing homes to possibly include some indoor visitation by the end of September.

Additional tweaks to the state’s three public health orders could also be on the horizon. While there likely won’t be any drastic changes to the health orders set to expire Sept. 15, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wednesday that state officials are looking at changes to accommodate indoor contact sports and other athletic competitions.

The discussion Thursday began as a review of the laws outlining Wyoming’s response to public health emergencies, and members of the committee ultimately voted to draft a bill establishing a task force to review the topic.

“I like the idea of us going forward with a collective effort to look back on this thing,” committee co-chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said at the end of the meeting. “I just feel like right now, being in the throes of this thing, we don’t know how our schools are going to respond to this ... I think we’ll know more in November.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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