The pandemic has made the position of county public health officer more than just a part-time job: it has become political. So far, two officers in Wyoming have been removed from their positions and one has resigned. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke with Washakie County's public officer, who did the work for ten years until he was removed by the commission this past fall. Dr. Ed Zimmerman said before the pandemic, the position was relatively easy.
Ed Zimmerman: So before this pandemic, we were still involved in any kind of planning for any kind of catastrophe that might have come along. We did a lot of training back when we had H1N1. If there's a national public disaster or any kind of natural disasters, we're involved with the health department expanding our response to that.
Kamila Kudelska: Back in January, February, March of last year, when COVID was kind of finally coming into our focus here in the United States, what was your thought process as the public health officer?
EZ: From a state level, I think Wyoming did a good job of preparing early. We knew that it might be coming and to get some education out. I think it was problematic for the CDC, how often their recommendation would change fairly frequently. And frequently we would make recommendations based on that, and then they might change their stance a little bit. And so that may have hurt our credibility a bit as public health officers as we were following their recommendations.
KK: Right, and in the beginning, when Wyoming went into a pretty full lockdown, even though we didn't necessarily have many cases, there was generally kind of a pushback from the population. And I just wonder, as a public health officer, what was your messaging?
EZ: So, initially, the county commissioners were supportive of what we might need to do as far as cutting back on restaurants, dining-in and such. And we had already set up a document that we could produce to actually put an order in place in our county. And then the state came down and did it from the state level. So we never had to use our own documents and that was helpful. And so that took some of the pressure off of the county officers, because it wasn't us specifically. But we still had to go out in the community and try to sell this as a reasonable public health measure. And there was a lot of pushback, appropriately at times, because, obviously, this is the lifeblood of any small town or small business, [such as] restaurants and daycares that were now not able to function.
KK: Once we actually started getting cases and we got a little bit tighter state variances as well as a little bit locally, what was the community reaction to that? And then, what was the commission's reaction as well?
EZ: The masking issue is really the one that caused the most trouble, at least in our county, and I think in a lot of other counties too. The County Health Officers as a whole had sent a letter to the governor asking him to implement a statewide mask order and that was not happening. And so several weeks later, there were quite a few of us on the call, we all decided that we would implement individual county masking mandates, since we couldn't get a statewide mandate, both to protect our counties and just try to put more pressure on the government to perhaps follow through with a state mandate. [In] my county the science was solid on my side, we were having a horrible increase. Our line of new cases was almost vertical. And so I used that when I presented to the county commission on what I was going to do.
KK: And how did they react to that?
EZ: Our county commission is made of three people and to a person, none of them supported a county wide mask ordinance.
KK: And why do you think they didn't?
EZ: It was political. We' re a strong republican state. And, unfortunately, it turned into a political issue. If you wore a mask at the grocery store, they thought you were a Democrat or a liberal of some type. And if you gave in to this masking thing, that you were kind of giving up some of your individual rights. And the county commissioners, I think it was just political on their side. I was confident in the scientific side of it, the epistemological side of why we should do what we did. But from a political stance, they did not want anyone to be told what they had to do.
KK: How did the community react to it? And what was your interaction with the community to tell them that this is needed and it's important?
EZ: In our county, I would go to the grocery store, before this happened, and me and my wife might be the only one in the store with masks on. After the ordinance, I would say maybe 70 percent, at least in the first few weeks, it might be 70 that wore masks and that's dropped now. I mean, I go in now and there's people masked maybe 50-50. But for a while there, I think we had a significant impact as far as the amount of people who are masking up.
KK: Okay, and then what was the fallout with the commission?
EZ: So I met with them on November 17. Obviously, they all, to a person, did not want this mandate to go forward. Fortunately, in Wyoming, even though the county health officers may be chosen by the county commission, we really don't answer to them as far as the decisions we make. We answer at the state level, and so they really have no control over the health officer. They just get to pick who it is. And so I went ahead and set that mandate in place. And then five days later, they held a special meeting just to fire me.
KK: And what was your reaction to that?
EZ: After 10 years of doing it, I was disappointed that it had ended like that. Now, someone will have to take over and start all over again. I mean, fortunately, whoever the next health officer is still doesn't have to do what the county commission wants. They're still responsible at the state level. And so I'm not sure that it will change as far as a mask ordinance and such. After this happened, of course, we ended up with a statewide mandate.
KK: And I just wonder, when you look back overall, about being a public health officer during a pandemic, I mean, what for you is kind of the biggest challenge?
EZ: I think the effect it has on your family. I was trashed on Facebook, like, every day. My kids were accosted at school. They would get emails about the fact that their dad was shutting down restaurants and requiring masks. So, you know, people talked to my kids. My wife was accosted at the grocery store. I know one county health officer, south of me, who ended up with a death threat. And so it's surprising the amount of anger that came out over this. They'll still buckle your seat belt, they'll put their tray table up when they're on the airplane, they'll give their kid an MMR shot before they go into sixth grade. And all of a sudden the mask becomes this huge invasion of their private liberty and so that was surprising.