FRIDAY FOCUS: Wyoming’s State Health Officer on Why ‘COVID is Here to Stay’ (Part 2)

Three years after the pandemic came to Wyoming, Dr. Alexia Harrist shares lessons learned

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, mixed messages from public health professionals have occasionally left Americans confused about the best course of action, leading to political and social disagreements about everything from mask policies to vaccine incentives to business reopenings.

The Wyoming Truth recently spoke with Wyoming state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist about how the Equality State fared throughout the pandemic, with part one of the conversation focusing on what the state did well.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, Wyoming’s state health officer, praised the success of vaccines at warding off severe COVID-19 cases, noting she wished more Wyomingites became vaccinated. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Alexia Harrist) 

In part two, Harrist was pressed about what lessons could be learned from the state’s COVID response to inform future such disasters. She also shared her message on how to prepare for the future of the virus and others like it. What follows are excerpts from part two of the interview.

Take me back to those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for you and your team, as the virus was setting in. What was that like?

Harrist: I think it’s easy for us to forget — now that it’s been three years and we have vaccines and we have therapeutics — that this time three years ago, this was a very new virus. We didn’t have tools, like vaccines or therapeutics or even enough testing. And so it was certainly a stressful time for everybody, and not just for the Department of Health.

For us, we were really trying to ensure that we stayed up to date on all the information that was available. We made sure when we had a case to try to understand where that infection could have come from to try to prevent that infection from spreading. The volume of COVID cases was so high compared to some of the other infections we dealt with. It was certainly long hours for a lot of our staff, trying to follow up and make the phone calls. It was important for us to talk to people, because it was a new virus and for us to explain what we knew about it, and what the protocols were.

Eventually, we were able to get additional staff to help . . . But it was definitely a crazy and very busy time. It felt like we were learning something new every single day. Yeah, I’m certainly glad it’s March of 2023 and not March of 2020.

Given what you know about the virus now versus what you knew in March of 2020, what might you have done differently?

Harrist: There were certainly some gaps in our national preparedness for these pandemics that came to light. We didn’t have enough testing available early enough at a national level. And that resulted in limitations on who could be tested. And I think that resulted in more viral spread here in the United States than we necessarily knew about, when potentially, if we were doing more testing earlier, we could have even slowed it even further, and given us more time to develop those vaccines and therapeutics…

We ran into problems with supply chain shortages, and it always seemed to be something different every week: personal protective equipment for healthcare providers and public health officials, masks or gloves or gowns, testing – we were sort of scrambling for those… So we need to look at how domestically we can be prepared to ramp up manufacturing and distribution and availability of those really critical things when we have a new virus or another pandemic.

We expect knowledge to change over the course of the pandemic, because we should be learning more about the virus. We should be developing new tools. From our communication standpoint, just communicating upfront that this is what we know now but we expect it to change, potentially that makes changing guidance be less frustrating as the pandemic goes on.

Lastly, I’ll say public health departments and other organizations and agencies in this state and nationwide have been sort of planning for health emergencies. It really ramped up after 9/11, so for over 20 years now. But I think in a lot of those planning scenarios, we think of a local, short-term event. And this was, of course, a national, very long-term event. So just considering those in our planning scenarios, in our training scenarios — that it might not be a local short-term event, [and] we also need to be prepared for a national long-term event like a pandemic.

The federal public health emergency declaration is ending shortly.  So is the COVID-19 pandemic over?

Harrist: What I think we can say is COVID is here to stay. We are certainly out of the emergency phase, because, again, we have the tools that we want in public health, right? We have vaccines, primarily, but we also have therapeutics. We have a lot of knowledge of this virus. We have systems to track the virus.

How do we incorporate COVID into, from a public health standpoint at least, our regular disease activity? [How do we] convey that COVID is a virus that’s here, that we should take prevention efforts just like we do influenza, for example? We’re still learning about how fast it changes, and how often we may need to get booster doses for vaccinations, et cetera. But that’s where we are, you know, incorporating COVID into our day-to-day public health strategies.

You’ve likely seen some of the reporting about investigative agencies disagreeing about whether COVID was the result of natural animal-to-human transmission or whether it might have come from some a lab in China. Do you have any comments regarding the origin of the virus?

Harrist: I’m not the right source for that information. Obviously, I think those investigations are important, because we would like to prevent — as much as we can — a next pandemic from happening. But my job, and our job here at the Department of Health, is to really focus on the public health concerns in Wyoming. And regardless of where COVID came from, it was and continues to be a public health concern in Wyoming.

What’s your message to Wyomingites about COVID for the short and long-term, as well as the rest of their lives?

Harrist: I think there are a few messages. COVID is now another virus like influenza or RSV, other respiratory viruses that are out there and that are here to stay. So plan as much as you can for that. Be prepared if you do get COVID. Try to prevent having severe outcomes [that result] in hospitalization. There are really effective therapeutics available that can prevent, if you do get COVID, needing to go to the hospital… They’re most helpful within the first few days of illness, so you don’t sort of want to be scrambling for that once you’ve been diagnosed.

We talked a lot about vaccines. It’s not too late to get vaccinated; vaccines are still available, [and] they continue to be effective, especially at reducing severe illness and death, against the current variants.

 . . . Thinking about respiratory viruses in general, some of the basic recommendations that probably people were tired of hearing about during COVID are still with us and are going to be with us really every fall and winter as we move forward, not just for COVID but for flu and RSV. So staying home when you’re sick, getting vaccinated when vaccines are available for these infections, washing your hands, wearing a mask if you choose to protect yourself against respiratory illnesses. These basic health public health recommendations, they certainly were very much talked about during COVID. But those are and will continue to be important recommendations for a lot of respiratory infections as we go forward.

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