Wyoming knew better than to blame health officers
July 1, 2020
More than a century ago, Wyoming residents lived through a flu pandemic much the same way people deal with the coronavirus today: restricting business activity and keeping their distance from others.
However, there is one notable difference: Wyomingites in 1918 reportedly didn’t protest the state or county’s efforts to keep them alive or grouse about their constitutional rights being violated. Survival mode had kicked in.
I wish the Equality State had more of that spirit in 2020 and fewer amateur legal experts refusing to wear masks. It’s a simple, inexpensive, painless and exceedingly small personal sacrifice everyone can make to help keep others healthy.
I also can’t abide armchair constitutionalists — especially if they’re legislators — whining that we must rein in out-of-control state and county public health officers. Give these health experts a break, please. They’ve been doing a good job since COVID-19 struck in early March and don’t deserve guff from anybody.
I’ll pick up this controversy in a few moments. But first, let’s take a trip back in time to an even deadlier pandemic, through the research of University of Wyoming history professor emeritus Phil Roberts.
Worldwide there had already been two waves of the Spanish influenza — which despite its name originated in Kansas — by the time the third one killed its first Wyoming residents in October 1918. The first wave was relatively mild, but the second was intense. By the end of the pandemic a year later at least 50 million died worldwide, and some estimates place the death toll twice as high.
The first thing Wyoming health officials did, according to Roberts’ WyoHistory.org centennial account in 2018, was close all schools, the University of Wyoming and “all places of amusement” until further notice.
“Since the soda fountains and picture shows are also closed,” observed UW’s student newspaper, “there is not a great deal of inducement to loiter on the street.” Statewide many businesses temporarily shuttered on their own as the disease spread. Those that remained open often limited the number of customers allowed at one time.
Like COVID-19, the flu killed many over 65 years old. But it also struck two other populations with equal fury: children under 5 and previously healthy adults between 20 and 40. Perhaps the wide age range of victims made the citizenry less likely to feel put out by taking precautions to protect an entire community’s health.
Some health officers were hailed as heroes, including those who convinced the Kemmerer town council to impose a quarantine in early October after the flu erupted in nearby Evanston. The Kemmerer newspaper’s editor opined that “there can be little doubt that our good fortune is due to [their] prompt and wise action,” even though businesses suffered for a short spell due to the shutdown.
Cokeville’s health officer imposed a quarantine later that month and warned visitors from other towns to stay away. Again, there was praise from the local press when the shutdown order was lifted.
“[L]ast Wednesday saw smiles on the faces of all,” with no new cases for a full week, reported the Cokeville Register. “During the quarantine, business has practically been at a standstill. … The merchants are to be thanked for the generous manner which they have observed the regulations.”
The Register’s editor also thanked townsfolk: “The men have done their part freely, and the ladies have spent long hours nursing and caring for the invalids.”
Notice the lack of calls by state lawmakers to immediately re-open the economy, such as one issued in late March by Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette).
Less than two weeks earlier, Gov. Mark Gordon had declared a state of emergency, and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist ordered the closure of schools and some non-essential businesses, including restaurants, bars, gyms, hair salons and barbershops. The governor and Harrist encouraged people to stay at home, wear masks, wash their hands and keep a safe distance away from others. Gatherings were limited to no more than 10 people.
Wyoming was one of only eight states that didn’t issue mandatory stay-at-home orders, but its relatively mild government intrusion was far too much for Clem. “The damage to the economy, the state and society may be worse than the disease, all while people get the disease anyway,” he wrote to Gordon. “We must prepare to live with this disease while maximizing economic activity.”
Other legislators entered the fray. During a special session in April, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) sponsored an amendment requiring the state to “make whole” all businesses kept from operating due to Harrist’s limited closure order. Fortunately, since the move would have bankrupted the state, the effort was overwhelmingly killed by the Senate.
Meanwhile, a different kind of hissy fit was thrown by two prominent Jackson conservatives who wanted U.S. Attorney Mark Klaassen to bring the mighty hammer of the federal government down on Teton County District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell.
Wait a minute … don’t Wyoming conservatives hate the feds? I guess not if, as Maurice “Jonesy” Jones hysterically wrote to Klaassen, Riddell’s order “basically puts us under house arrest.”
Dan Brophy wrote on The Wyoming Net, “The decisions of one official, backed by the power of [the county attorney’s] office, deprived an entire county of its citizens’ ability to live their lives. No avenues or counterargument, protest, challenge, appeal exist.”
Riddell raised the ire of Jones and Brophy, but his orders were in line with Harrist’s statewide directives. Klaassen diplomatically told the pair his office was “actively monitoring” the situation for constitutional violations, but he didn’t see any yet. I would have told them to go pound sand and get over themselves. Which is the same message I have for Clem, who earlier this month brought a stunningly bad idea to a legislative committee. His measure would have required state or county public health officers who issue emergency orders to justify extending them past 21 days by offering “scientific evidence” in court that they were necessary.
It was defeated 8-4 by the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. The panel drafted another inane bill to require the state public health officer to have any quarantines, travel restrictions or other orders renewed by the Legislature after 15 days. Few of the current crop of lawmakers are qualified to hand out cough drops, much less make life-or-death medical decisions.
Let’s be clear: Health officers don’t want to ruin the economy. But it’s their job to respond to life and death public health threats.
And for that, they are being targeted across the nation. In recent weeks 20 were fired, resigned or retired because of political pressure. Their national association said many “have been physically threatened and politically scapegoated.”
“We are losing expertise, experience, and most importantly, leadership, at a time when we need it the most,” the group stated in a news release.
Why are we failing to face this challenge with the nobility and unity of Wyomingites a century ago? I’m sure not everyone was thrilled by the closures, but historian Roberts found no evidence of rebellion. People followed the rules because they cared about their neighbors. They saw 780 people lose their lives before the disease suddenly vanished from the state in January 1919.
The death toll was even greater than the 500 Wyoming soldiers who were killed in World War I. But considering 675,000 Americans died during the flu pandemic, the state could have fared far worse.
Wyomingites’ resilience and their shared faith in fighting the viral enemy together kept our ancestors from scapegoating health officers for temporary economic sacrifices or choosing political tribalism over common-sense hygiene practices.
I hope it’s not too late to learn from their century-old wisdom.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.