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As Wyoming COVID-19 numbers continue to drop the State Health Officer takes a moment to look back

Dr. Alexia Harrist

COVID-19 numbers have dropped substantially, as have other things, such as hospitalizations due to the virus. Recently Governor Gordon ended the public health emergency. State Health Officer Doctor Alexia Harrist joined Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck to assess the situation and discuss the past couple of years.

Bob Beck: So, I guess the first question is, have you solved the pandemic?

Dr. Alexia Harrist: We have not solved the pandemic, the virus is still with us. But we are certainly in a different phase of the pandemic for a lot of reasons. The first is that we have a lot more immunity in the population than we used to because of vaccinations as well as because of infections. We have therapeutics that are available to treat people who are at risk of severe illness. Vaccines are widely available and free, as is testing widely available. And we just have a lot more knowledge of the virus than we certainly did two years ago at this point. So it is a different phase.

BB: As for the cases you are still seeing, is the virus impacting a specific population?

AH: Not really, we aren't seeing patterns in particular like that. We're really just seeing fewer people with COVID at this point.

BB: As you look back at the start of the pandemic, how do you assess how things went?

AH: I look at things that I think that we did well such as keeping schools open, I really do think that that was one of our highest priorities. And in Wyoming, we were able to keep schools open for a greater percentage of students and for more time than many other states. And that was simply by making that a priority. By incorporating reasonable precautions, to keep students safe, while allowing them to be in school. I also look at things like the development of the vaccines, not necessarily something that Wyoming did, but as an accomplishment in the United States to have safe and effective vaccines less than a year after we had the virus in this country is really an amazing accomplishment.

I think the entire time we really tried to balance protection of public health, with knowing that there are activities that people want and need to do. And how can we continue to do those activities, while taking those reasonable precautions? And that was really our stance all the way through.

BB: You kind of got it from both sides. I know there were people that didn't think the state was tough enough who wanted more controls. And certainly, you heard from plenty of folks that wanted fewer. How hard was that balance?

AH: Truthfully, it certainly was a difficult balance. And you're exactly right, we did hear from both sides. From people who thought we should be doing more, and certainly people who thought we should be doing less. In some ways, when you're hearing that from both sides, you know that you're somewhere in the middle, balancing both aspects. And that's what we wanted to do. But as the state health officer whose job it is to protect the public health, it was probably harder for me to hear the feedback or criticism that we weren't doing enough. But that's why there were so many people involved in the response. Many people in the Department of Health and talking with other agencies and stakeholders in the governor's office, helped to keep that balance. And again, letting people do the things they need to do but in the safest way possible.

BB: Did you anticipate so much rhetoric about this when things started? It started out ok and then the anger picked up. What are your thoughts on that?

AH: I certainly don't think anyone did, but I certainly didn't anticipate the amount of anger looking back on it. You can certainly understand it. You know, certainly things like public health orders had a real impact on people's lives. I think some of the reasons are because science changes, our knowledge changes, and it has. At multiple points throughout the pandemic, our knowledge has grown and our tools have grown and guidance and recommendations have changed. And that can be frustrating for people, even for me. And I think that can create some confusion and anger. But no, it wasn't expected. You know, we do a lot of things in public health, including things like investigating cases of disease and contact tracing. And usually, people are happy that we're involved in that and that we're helping them through this situation and giving them the information that they need to know to prevent further illness or to get the appropriate treatment. So it was certainly surprising and understandable. But you know something, I think that helps us learn a lot. And you incorporate that into the next time, which again, I hope will be well, long after I have retired.

BB: Well, that may be the case if you retire next week. But there's a chance you could see a resurgence of this, or something more. I know you and many others in the state have been reviewing the last couple of years and thinking about it. Is there something you've picked up along the way that you can share with us? Something you want to do the next time something like this happens?

AH: Yes, we are in the process, as we always have been, throughout the two years of looking back at what we've done and learning about ways that we could do it better next time. One thing we always look at is testing and that certainly wasn't just a Wyoming issue, it was really a national issue that we didn't have as much testing as we needed at the beginning, to really be able to test everybody who should have been tested. And we might have been even more successful at slowing the virus down initially, so that we could develop the tools that we needed that we have now like vaccines and therapeutics.

Things will change with a new pathologic agent or a new virus. And they should change because we should learn more, and we should develop new tools. But I think a lot of things went well, too. We have a very specific program in the Department of Health that is meant to prepare for these types of events, things like being able to distribute vaccines and therapeutics rapidly and to where they need to go. We had plans for that. And we were able to use them and they worked. So we are looking at where we can improve the systems we had in place and those that worked well. And we will continue to do that over the next month.

BB: I'm hearing there's another variant out there…anything that you've learned that concerns you?

AH: Yep, the BA.2 variant is an omicron variant, but it's slightly different from the omicron that we saw here in January and February. We are keeping a close eye on it. We have had several cases here in Wyoming and there are some increases in cases going on right now with these big sub variants in Europe. But in the United States, while we are seeing more of this variant, we continue to see a reduction in cases and hospitalizations. So that's all good. I think it's something we do need to keep an eye on. I think we can't predict right now exactly what it will mean for the United States. But we are certainly in a much better position to be prepared for that with all the tools that I talked about before.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.

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