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Wet Socks and Mask Mandates

My family and I recently spent four nights camping in rain and snow at 10,600’. Even with baggies as vapor barriers, socks were soaked by the end of the day, so I ordered the boys to sleep with their wet socks next to their body in order to dry them out. Needless to say, my order wasn’t well received, but it ensured that they had at least one pair of dry socks at all times, even by day five.

I also recently voted to extend a Teton County health order (found here) that masks should be worn in indoor spaces frequented by the public. It hasn’t been well received either. After all, in a county where well north of 90% of the people who can be vaccinated are vaccinated, the need for a mask order seems like a bunch of b.s. The perceived infringement of a mask order on personal freedoms is more acute and more hotly debated than ever. And like sleeping with wet socks, wearing masks, even to avoid bad health outcomes, isn’t fun.

Nor is this why I ran for county commission. When I was first elected in 2014, my responsibilities as a commissioner to uphold state law and promote the health and welfare of county citizens didn’t include the responsibility to make complex decisions related to epidemiology. That authority was left to state and local health officers, chosen for their expertise in health, medicine and/or epidemiology. But this year the Wyoming legislature limited the authority of those experts by mandating that no order may remain in place for more than ten days unless extended by the corresponding local elected body, thus placing such fraught decisions in the hands of people like me and my four fellow commissioners, none of whom are trained to make such decisions.

I could have punted and simply followed the strong recommendation of the County Board of Health to extend the order. After all, last winter masking in public indoor spaces was broadly accepted and helped keep our schools open and community economically afloat. But now, with very high county-wide vaccination rates, why should I support a mandate? I decided to do my own research and, while giving significant weight to the recommendation and information provided by the Health Officer and Board of Health, make my own decision. As well, I recognize the weight of a government mandate, value community input, take seriously the intent of the new law that is meant to bring such decisions closer to the people and am, by nature, curious.

We received over 600 emails commenting on the order. I read them all or scanned the ones that were obviously duplicates and based on a mass-email template. Throughout the pandemic I’ve read hundreds more emails, many demanding stricter non-pharmaceutical interventions and many calling for no interventions at all. I also did my best to track headlines and read articles and studies on COVID and COVID interventions from a broad array of sources.

Many folks who commented against mask mandates cited statistics, studies and research to back their claim that masks were ineffective. Others for the mandate supported their claim by citing their own sources. On occasion both sides cited the same sources but interpreting them differently. Some emails were from health professionals; most were from folks who had no more training than I in epidemiology. I did my best to review the statistics and read the studies they cited. I respect everyone’s stance and value everyone’s input so long as it reflects a sincere commitment to the best interests of the community.

I ultimately voted in favor of the mandate. Many of you may differ vehemently as to whether there should or should not be a mask mandate. Regardless, I think well of you. What follows is a description of my own path towards my decision.

My commitment as a commissioner is to promote the health and welfare of the community. Regarding this pandemic that means to do what I can within my statutory powers to support policies that reduce deaths, serious illness and hospitalizations due to COVID so that our hospital can sustainably service all the health needs, not just COVID related, of all the people throughout the broader Teton region. When I look back on my role as a commissioner during the COVID pandemic, I’ll need to answer the question, how well did I balance the benefits of actions I supported on COVID morbidity, mortality and serious healthcare outcomes (like overwhelmed hospitals) with the costs, such as the diminution of freedoms and negative socioeconomic impacts? Did I do everything that I could, given my position, to thread the needle between bad health outcomes with higher levels of COVID deaths, COVID hospitalizations, and COVID-related closures (of schools and businesses), and bad outcomes associated with costs to personal freedom and economic pursuits?

Here are some of the pieces of information and data I took into consideration, linked to their sources:

Mortality rates and causes—On state and nation-wide levels COVID has resulted in excess deaths. Data is not specific to Teton County, but as of September 3rd Teton County, Wyoming had recorded 11 deaths due to Covid. St. John’s handles patients from neighboring counties, and some deaths that have occurred at St. John’s were patients from outside Teton County. As of September 5th, Wyoming has had 858 deaths where Covid was listed as the cause or a significant cause of death. In 2020 Wyoming had 5,983 deaths compared to 5,121 in 2019. Out of the 862 deaths, COVID was the cause or a contributing factor to 528. Based on data compiled by the Economist, nationally and globally excess deaths appear to be vastly undercounted. Recently the Economist published a follow up article with more specific numbers. So, while Teton County has avoided the worst of impacts due to excess deaths caused by COVID, state, national and global excess deaths suggest that it behooves Teton County to keep a lid on COVID infection rates.

That said, Teton County is healthier overall than most counties, so it’s in our favor that excess deaths due to COVID are higher in counties that have poorer health. And our vaccination rate is very high. Almost 99% of the population 12 or older has had at least one shot. This is a stunning accomplishment. And rates of hospitalization and severe illness among those vaccinated for COVID are much lower than among those not vaccinated.

Yet on September 2nd, it wasn’t looking good for our local hospital. Levels of COVID morbidity and trends in infections were headed sharply higher. Around 26% of our hospital’s ICU beds were occupied by COVID patients and about 19% of our hospital’s total beds were occupied by COVID patients. The moving 7-day average hospitalization admissions, hospital bed occupancy, cases, infections were all trending up. Public comment at our county meeting indicated that hospital staff, were strained, worn out and stressed.

To a certain extent, the need for a mask order was based on a race between the more virulent Delta variant and our communities level of vaccination. Based on infections and hospitalizations, the Delta variant seems to be winning. Or perhaps something else is going on that’s preventing the vaccine from protecting the community as I expected it would.

Unfortunately, vaccination rates in surrounding counties are mostly below 50%. Since at least 8,000 people commute into Teton County from these bedroom communities every day, this could be driving our higher rates of COVID and COVID hospitalization.

Whatever the cause, high levels of serious illness relative to local hospital capacity can have dire consequences. Hospitals in Rock Springs are canceling elective procedures so staff can focus on COVID patients. Caseloads in Idaho recently reached levels that hospitals can’t handle without additional support from the National Guard. Schools in Hot Springs County had to revert to virtual learning, stranding kids at home and pulling parents away from their jobs. And caring for COVID patients is exceptionally costly ($51,000 to $78,000 based on age), putting additional stress on our small, rural hospital.

Along with heavy commuter traffic, we are a tourism-based county, and tourism appears to heighten the risk of COVID. I did not find scientific studies on this topic, but many news stories suggest there is a correlation between tourism and higher COVID caseloads and levels of morbidity, mortality and severe health outcomes. Blaine County is similar to Teton County in winter and has experienced worse spikes than Teton County. Coastal cities with high levels of tourism suggest there’s a link between tourism and high caseloads. And heavily visited Black Hills counties in South Dakota experienced spikes in August.

I reviewed economic activity as well. Over the course of last winter, with a mask mandate in place, economic activity was robust. Lodging has been at or above historic levels. Airport traffic is setting records, and sales tax collections are up even compared to 2019. It doesn’t appear a mask order would in any way suppress economic activity.

Furthermore, schools in Teton County are open five days a week for in-person learning, and universal mask wearing appears to be playing a role in that success.

Specific to masks, I think the evidence is compelling that masks, when properly worn, reduce the amount of COVID transmitting aerosol and the distance that it travels upon expiration: “We used a cough aerosol simulator with a pliable skin headform to propel small aerosol particles (0 to 7 µm) into different face coverings. An N95 respirator blocked 99% of the cough aerosol, a medical grade procedure mask blocked 59%, a 3-ply cotton cloth face mask blocked 51%, and a polyester neck gaiter blocked 47% as a single layer and 60% when folded into a double layer.” (Lindsley WG, Blachere FM, Law BF, Beezhold DH, Noti JD. Efficacy of face masks, neck gaiters and face shields for reducing the expulsion of simulated cough-generated aerosols. Aerosol Sci Technol. 2020; in press). And in this study, “Our results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.”

But masks aren’t perfect: “Airborne simulation experiments showed that cotton masks, surgical masks, and N95 masks provide some protection from the transmission of infective SARS-CoV-2 droplets/aerosols; however, medical masks (surgical masks and even N95 masks) could not completely block the transmission of virus droplets/aerosols even when sealed.” Precautions other than simply wearing masks likely play a much larger role in stemming infections. The fact that COVID cases rose dramatically last fall and winter, with mask mandates in place, clearly suggests that macro factors and levels of adherence to other precautions against COVID can outweigh the effects of a mask mandate.

However my read of much of the science literature on masks and community spread supports a correlation (not necessarily causation) between community wide use of masks and a decline in infections and hospitalizations, other things being equal. In the mask order before us on September 2nd, sources 30 through 40 support a statistically significant correlation between community-wide masking and reductions in mortality and hospitalizations.

There is also evidence, though perhaps less compelling, of a non-trivial probability that, on state-wide or community-wide bases, mask mandates work. For example, this study finds that “Evidence suggests that the potential benefits of wearing masks likely outweigh the potential harms when SARS-CoV-2 is spreading in a community. However, mask mandates involve a tradeoff with personal freedom, so such policies should be pursued only if the threat is substantial and mitigation of spread cannot be achieved through other means.”

This European Center for Disease Control paper was cited by those opposed to the mandate as evidence that mask mandates are ineffective. My take on it is that, while the ECDC concluded that mandates had a low to moderate probability of a positive impact, it gave them a strong nod of approval: “Although there is only low to moderate certainty of evidence for a small to moderate effect of the use of medical face masks in the community for the prevention of COVID-19, the balance of results towards a protective effect across the wide variety of studies reviewed, the very low risk of serious adverse effects and applying the precautionary principle leads us to conclude that face masks should be considered an appropriate nonpharmaceutical intervention in combination with other measures in the effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic…..The evidence regarding the effectiveness of medical face masks for the prevention of COVID-19 in the community is compatible with a small to moderate protective effect, but there are still significant uncertainties about the size of this effect.”

This study from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report finds a correlation between mask mandates and a reduction in hospitalization growth rates due to covid. “…in this study mask mandates were associated with a statistically significant 5.6 percentage-point decline in COVID-19 hospitalization growth rates (p-value = 0.02) ≥3 weeks after the implementation week. Among adults aged 40–64 years, mask mandates were associated with a 2.9 percentage-point reduction in COVID-19 hospitalization growth rates (p-value = 0.03) <3 weeks after the implementation week. Hospitalization growth rates declined by 5.6 percentage points (p-value = 0.02) during ≥3 weeks after the implementation week.”

And this study finds that “Mandating face mask use in public is associated with a decline in the daily COVID-19 growth rate by 0.9, 1.1, 1.4, 1.7 and 2.0 percentage points in 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, and 21 or more days after state face mask orders were signed, respectively.”

Finally, results from a massive study done in Bangladesh found a clear correlation between increased mask wearing and reduced infections: “The increase in mask-wearing reduced infections, showing that mask-wearing avoided 1 in 3 symptomatic infections….This was the first large-scale randomized evaluation to demonstrate the effectiveness of masks in a real-world setting.”

That said, some of the science cited in the health order is not as clear as I’d like it to be. For example, the study cited in this order specific to an outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt study did find that “The findings reinforce the importance of nonpharmaceutical interventions such as wearing a face covering” but also notes some caveats, including that it was a convenience sample: “First, the analysis was conducted on a convenience sample of persons who might have had a higher likelihood of exposure, and all information was based on self-report, raising the possibility of selection and recall biases.”

But the studies cited as evidence against the need for masks were not unequivocal. For example, this study was cited by folks opposed to a mask mandate. It’s based on a review of 67 studies on physical interventions to reduce the spread of acute respiratory viruses and found that “The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low compliance with the interventions during the studies hamper drawing firm conclusions and generalizing the findings to the current Covid pandemic.” My emphasis. Part of the reason for not generalizing to this pandemic is that none of the 67 studies were conducted during the current pandemic.

At least one email cited an article from the New York Magazine Intelligencer section casting doubt on the effectiveness of mask mandates specifically for students in schools. The article focused on this study that looked at a sample of schools with about 50,000 students where masks were required versus a sample of schools with about 43,000 students where masks were recommended but optional. Adjusting for county-level incidence, COVID-19 incidence was 37% lower in schools that required teachers and staff members to use masks, and 39% lower in schools that improved ventilation, compared with schools that did not use these prevention strategies. It’s true that the study did not find a statistically significant lower incidence of COVID-19 in schools with mandates specific to students only (my emphasis): “…the 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional…” But, “…this study highlighted the importance of masking and ventilation for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in elementary schools and revealed important opportunities for increasing their use among schools. A multicomponent approach to school COVID-19 prevention efforts is recommended (2), and requirements for universal and correct mask use among teachers and staff members and improved ventilation are two important strategies that could reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission as schools continue, or return to, in-person learning.” That seems to me to say that requiring masks can’t hurt.

I also considered what other agencies were doing, especially those critical to national defense. Indeed COVID interventions practiced by the US Military include a mask mandate very similar to Teton County’s.

I also chose to weigh costs (specifically those associated with infringements on personal freedoms) and benefits by comparing fatality rates due to COVID with fatality rates due to motor vehicle collisions. After all, we’ve adopted widely accepted mandates to wear seat belts and set limits on blood alcohol levels while driving. In 2019 there were 36,096 deaths from highway vehicle crashes, or just under 3,700 per day. In 2017 an estimated 14,955 deaths were avoided by wearing seat belts. In Wyoming in 2019 there were 147 highway fatalities or 25.4/100,000 people. Regarding COVID, as of August 28th Wyoming had 835 deaths due to Covid and WY’s 7-day moving average of Covid deaths per 100,000 was 144, or almost the same number of total highway fatalities in one year. If requiring seat belts to reduce highway fatalities in Wyoming by 70 or 80 is reasonable, is it reasonable to require masks to help bring down COVID mortality rates?

Finally, I believe a mandate is fairer than voluntary compliance to a request. For example, under voluntary compliance, one bar might hold concerts where no one wears a mask, quite possibly raising infection rates and hospitalizations and forcing more workers to quarantine. Meanwhile those in the community who voluntarily wear masks shoulder the load for trying to lower infections and hospitalizations.

There’s little to enjoy about having to instate a mandate. Vaccinations were supposed to bring life back to normal. But state, regional and local COVID infection levels, illness due to COVID and hospitalizations indicate we need to do more to avoid the worst costs of this pandemic. In the community update prior to our decision, the District Health Officer pointed out that wearing masks is like putting on a puffy jacket for an additional layer of protection in sub-zero weather. That may be true if masks are worn consistently, properly and when it matters most—indoors at close quarters and in conjunction with other important interventions such as avoiding large indoor gatherings. But I fear compliance will be low in this community where patience with health mandates has worn thin, when mask wearing is highly politicized, and tempers are high. Alas, a mask mandate is likely more like a layer of dry socks. It’s not the one thing that will save your life. But given the alternative, I think it’s worth the effort.

Navigating a Dangerous Winter

The formation of snowflakes, the delicate, complex crystals of ice that will hopefully soon blanket mountain slopes and provide days of gliding joy, winter escape and alpine adventure, can be modeled using fractals.

So can the spread of COVID 19.

Like the stellar arms of snowflakes, COVID spreads in clusters, arms branching off of arms, new surfaces continually forming as every new infected individual becomes another potential growth vector.

Unfortunately, here in Teton County, across Wyoming, and throughout the nation, COVID, rather than snow, is blanketing our communities.

Fellow residents, we have two to six weeks to stem this tide. Unlike summer where visitors fan out across public lands, our winter economy focuses visitors and locals on three mountains with lift access, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort preeminent among them.

If we allow COVID into the ski areas, if we cripple this one essential industry, our winter economy could collapse. With ski resorts idled, visitor volume plummets, customers drain from hotels, restaurants already teetering on the edge of viability have to close. Workers are laid off. The economy grinds to a halt.

We have one shot. This winter won’t come around again. Yet this winter could break small businesses, strip families of a season’s worth of income, and tragically take lives. But not if we return to the disciplined behavior we practiced earlier this year.

The ski area has examined every aspect of its operations and scientifically calculated capacities, in everything from lift lines, to gondola rides to restaurant seating. There’s even going to be a bootpack to the top of Rendezvous Bowl for those of you seeking a tram-free, lung bursting addition to your powder skiing day.

But, critically, as a community we need to take the right steps. The need for comfort, friendship, family, companionship, entertainment with friends, the touch of a loved one runs deep – bottomless, as we say of a post dump powder day. And it’s the Holidays. How can we not be with friends and family? You can. But our visits have to be limited, thought out and within reasonable guidelines with respect to pandemic behavior.

If limiting our family and social gatherings feels like a letdown, the alternative is far worse. We simply cannot jeopardize our winter economic lifeline, the ski areas. Our winter economy is supported by one rope. We cannot let it fray or break.

No matter our values—conservative, liberal, ski-bum—we know that as a community we are capable of voluntarily doing the right thing. Governor Gordon implored Wyomingites to vote for President Trump and to wear masks and follow other protective measures. Senator Barrasso too has pleaded that we wear masks and practice distancing, and we all know he’s no socialist. And if Old Bill’s giving is any indication, we know Teton County is capable of working together as a community.

We can do this.

Here are the health recommendations. We’ve read them. We know them. Let’s practice them.

We’ve got one shot, Jackson Hole. This winter’s not going to come around twice. We have less than six weeks until the busiest weeks of the winter season to lower infection rates and reduce hospitalizations. It’s the off season, relatively free of outside visitation. Of any time of year, now is when we can control our destiny. For six weeks, let’s practice the discipline we know we’re capable of.

And then, this one winter, let’s stay focused. We simply can’t let a New Year’s celebration or a fiftieth birthday party or a mid-winter wedding or apres-ski visits to the bar turn into super spreader events, into growth vectors for another exponentially growing arm of the COVID pandemic.

We know what to do. Don’t go out when you don’t feel well. Avoid packed crowds and crowded indoor spaces. Wear a mask unless medically unable. Wash hands. Clean surfaces. And if you do test positive, be forthright about where you’ve been and with whom you’ve been in contact. For this one winter.

My Fellow American, I think Well of You

On Sunday February 19, 2012, a feather-like snow crystal standing on end, less than a centimeter tall and buried under three feet of newly fallen snow, collapsed. Instantaneously millions of other snow crystals in that same thin layer, no longer able to support the load of the snow above, also collapsed, causing a slab containing 6,000 cubic meters of snow to break loose, shatter and accelerate down the slope. The shattered slab quickly became a churning mass of snow barreling downhill at 65 mph.

The five skiers in its path had no chance to escape. It pinned one against a tree, pounding him relentlessly as it passed, and swept the other four down the slope, tossing them like rag dolls, slamming them against trees and packing their mouths with snow. When the avalanche finally came to rest 2,500 feet below, all were buried. Two were rescued by other members of the original group of sixteen who had taken a safer descent route. The other three were dead from some combination of trauma and asphyxiation.

The fragile, deadly layer of snow was invisible to the skiers. Possibly some in the group suspected it was there because they had tracked the weather and knew the calm, dry period preceding the storm was conducive to forming such lethal crystals. Possibly they refused to believe the layer was sensitive enough to react to the weight of a skier. Possibly others had a gut feeling they were in dangerous terrain but, enticed by the allure of deep, untracked powder, followed the lead of others and didn’t speak up. Possibly some didn’t suspect there was any risk at all. Possibly some simply knew that they couldn’t perfectly predict the outcome of skiing the slope but given the dire consequence took a safer line. Each skier had a different view of the risk level that morning, or perhaps didn’t have a view at all. Whatever the reason, the group failed to establish a final, widely shared, decisive assessment of the risk.

As a backcountry skier it’s impossible to predict with 100% accuracy that you or a companion will not trigger an avalanche. There are myriad variables that go into the stability of snow. Snow can weaken or the weather can change in the span of a few hours and radically change the probability that a skier could trigger an avalanche. Across a hundred backcountry skiers, there is rarely complete consensus on what it would take to trigger an avalanche on any given slope, or when it is safe to ski any given slope, or when it is not. Everyone brings their own assessment of the risk, based on their own analysis, their own observations, their own data. And when it comes down to that final go/no-go decision, the only definitive answer is the binary event of an avalanche. By then, if you’re wrong, it’s too late.

Sound familiar? SARS-CoV-2 is invisible. It can live in a human who may look and feel perfectly healthy. By the time you can visually observe that you are at risk of getting infected, it may be too late. Once infected, maybe you’ll survive, like 37.6 million people globally who caught Covid and survived. Or maybe, like almost 1.1 million others, you won’t. Clearly there is a risk associated with exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

Risk is rarely easy to measure. Scientists are struggling across the globe to monitor, map and forecast where Covid outbreaks will occur and how many people will die as a result of those outbreaks. Models are being developed and deployed to understand the effectiveness and impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions and policies (closures, shutdowns, etc.) to protect populations and stem the spread of the pandemic. As of late October, 2020, with cases on the rise in many countries, governments struggle to find the right balance of testing, tracing, closures, shutdowns and lockdowns. The economic consequences can be devastating if closures are unwarranted and unreasonably strict. The health consequences are devastating if policies are not strict enough.

Outcomes vary dramatically across nations. Peru imposed strict policies but struggled with high case and death rates. Sweden is the leading example of a country with few strict non-pharmaceutical interventions yet fewer deaths per 100,000 people than in the U.S. Taiwan tops the charts with one of the lowest levels of closures and remarkably low rates of Covid. In the U.S. state-level incidence and mortality rates vary widely amidst a hodgepodge of closures, lockdowns, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Correlations abound that are being construed to support or oppose various interventions. Some find evidence of correlations between mask orders and higher incidence of Covid  and have taken the view that mask wearing worsens the spread of the disease (see this lengthy email exchange). Others point to correlations that support mask wearing as an important intervention.

What’s going on here? The wild card is human behavior. It’s well-known that as a species we are wholly unable to consistently and accurately judge risk. As described by Marilynne Robinson in a conversation with Ezra Klein, “we are trapped by our primitive notion of causality.” In other words, when it comes to an accurate assessment of reality, we are too often one sandwich short of a picnic.

No backcountry traveler will ever have the kind of x-ray vision and intuitive grasp of physics to scan a mountain slope and know with certainty that a slope will avalanche under a skier’s weight. No mortal can scan the town as they leave the house and know where they will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Yet people still ski backcountry slopes, introducing some probability into their life of getting caught in an avalanche; and people still socialize in groups, go to bars, or otherwise increase their probability of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

Why? Humans have needs, whether it might on the surface seem trivial, like the need to ski powder or bar hop, or something more basic like the need to procure food and support loved ones. In the fulfillment of those needs, when we are faced with assessing risk amidst daunting levels of complexity, fraught with unknown variables and indeterminable consequences, we resort to simple rule-making procedures, or heuristics, to make the go/no-go decision easier.

For accidents involving avalanches, Ian McCammon identified four. We are most comfortable with the familiar. We seek social proof by mimicking the behavior of others in our close social circles. We are biased by commitment, finding it difficult to change course despite new information. And we more aggressively pursue our needs as restrictions and constraints are placed on our freedoms and reduce the options available to us. Such heuristics often have very little to do with the actual risk level.

As a result, risk assessment can be highly individual. That is challenging enough when it comes to guiding pandemic behavior to achieve the optimal balance of economic activity and non-pharmaceutical interventions. But compounding the challenge is politization. Whether it’s closures or masks or even a belief in the pandemic itself, what you believe and what you see in the data seems to be defined by whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. Conservatives claim the pandemic is not that serious of a threat and that government-led interventions are overblown. Democrats find weaknesses with almost every facet of the current administration’s response. 

This, to me, is bizarre. The last I checked, Republicans and Democrats were not at war over whether a buried layer of feathery snow crystals can be deadly or not. People who teach avalanche courses teach you the same material regardless of their, or your, political affiliation.

Again, what’s going on here? An intriguing interview with Thomas Friedman gave me a clue. It’s about trust. And dignity. It’s about fear. And humiliation. These are the most powerful emotions. It is natural to fear, especially during a pandemic. We fear sickness, death, loss of jobs and the roof over our heads and loss of freedoms. In a state of fear, our senses are heightened; the world is no longer safe. Is “the other side” out to get us? Do they want my job, my business, my freedom, my dignity? Behaviors and beliefs that don’t align with ours are more threatening than ever. How easy it becomes to humiliate. And how searing the wound thereby inflicted. Too much humiliation, too little dignity, a loss of trust, and we burn down our democracy.

Why would we do this? Why tear apart the very house built by our forefathers to protect cherished freedoms, the most brilliant system of government in the history of the world? Friedman points out that the only thing worse than a one-party autocracy is a one-party democracy and that our entire system is built around the notion there will be two parties that fight hard but ultimately compromise.

Yet we now believe the “other side” is evil.

Marilynne told Ezra Klein, “If you think another person is evil, you are effectively blinded.” Are we going blind—a self-inflicted, fundamentally destructive, malady?

We’ve come a long way, Teton County, and gone through a lot: late March closures, April-May stay-at-home orders, June re-openings, a July spike in cases, mask orders, an August drop in cases, September school openings, and a recent resurgence and a close call at the Living Center. We’ve debated policies every step of the way.

I too have pondered our response every step of the way. Shutdowns, lockdowns, closures, orders, recommendations, partial closures, essential versus non-essential businesses, curbside pickup, alcohol to go, gathering sizes, mask mandates, quarantines and school openings or closings. I’ve tossed and turned many a night struggling with the essence of the pandemic: what is the baseline risk? And how much does each intervention or set of interventions reduce that risk? One study says this; another that. One country does this and their local hospitals can’t keep up while another country does that and gets along fine.

I too have feared—for the community, for my family, for my parents, for me. What if I could set aside my fear of the disease, my fear that I and my loved ones could become seriously ill or die from COVID? What if I could set aside my fear that health orders are inching us towards a less democratic, less liberal and more autocratic state? Would I then be able to view the pandemic with balance and sobriety?

As a local leader it is imperative to recognize that I too am trapped “by a primitive notion of causality.” I too am susceptible to heuristic traps. I too can fear and close my ears to those who oppose what instinctively feels right to me or to those who support what instinctively feels wrong. But like an avalanche involving a group of skiers where each has their own interpretation of the risk, there is no correct moral stance, just a recognition that amidst the complexity of predicting an avalanche we each bring our own assessment of the risk or the probability that one will occur.

As a local political leader, I must also recognize that Democracy demands that we are all equal and see each other as equal. Ms. Robinson says that democracy can only thrive when we are willing to think well of one another.

2020 has left many of us disoriented, disrupted, discouraged. Let it not leave us defeated.

My fellow American, I think well of you.

COVID 19: Nationwide Cohesion Needed

In the book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James, the book’s Zen Master, George Pocock, gave Joe Rantz these words of advice: Once you row past the pain, the exhaustion, the voice that said it can’t be done, then strive to work in harmony with the others in the boat, trust the others in the boat, and when you do, “you will feel as if you rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” With Joe and seven other depression-era working class boys rowing in perfect sync, Joe’s team stole the 1936 Olympic Gold from Nazi Germany.

Now imagine fifty very different rowers that have to row in perfect unison. Only the race isn’t for gold. It is for lives. Millions of lives.

Today, states and counties in the US have a myriad of different COVID 19-related county declarations and policies. They vary dramatically, even across neighboring states. This is a big problem, with life and death consequences. Counties need stronger state leadership, and states must cooperate at unprecedented levels.

All fifty states have declared states of emergency. But even under these declarations, counties pursue their own policies. And their public health offices or local governments often have to seek approval from the state health officer or the governor’s office before implementing stricter closures than those imposed by the state.

Counties throughout our nation have often been out in front of their states in implementing COVID 19-related closures and limits on public gatherings. Teton County, Wyoming, gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and home to three ski areas including the popular Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, recognized the threat that remaining open for businesses would pose to a small, rural health care system. Local leaders and health officials knew the resorts, restaurants, bars and shops—all incredibly reliant on tourist—had to close. Supported by the local town and county governments, the Teton District Health Officer had to craft his own resolution and request approval from the State Health Officer in order to implement it. Shortly thereafter, the Governor announced state-wide closures.

However, at the time of writing, just over the border, Idaho merely recommends that “organizers (whether groups or individuals) postpone or cancel mass gatherings and public events” with over fifty people or more. That despite the fact that as many as 10,000 residents of eastern Idaho commute daily back and forth across the state line. Teton County, Idaho later implemented closures similar to those in Teton County, Wyoming. But elsewhere in Idaho, closures and restrictions vary widely, from the minimum required by the state to shelter-in-place restrictions in Blaine County—home to Sun Valley Ski Resort and the hardest hit county in Idaho—to bans on visitors entering from regions “that have sustained widespread community transmission” in Custer County.

Similar patterns of disparate county-level restrictions exist across the nation. In much of Kansas restaurants and bars remain open. In New York, Illinois and California the hardest hit counties have implemented shelter-in-place policies. While hard-hit Washington state has not gone that far.

A lack of a coordinated response will likely result in nationwide infection rates almost uniformly above 75%, with catastrophic implications for local health care systems. If one state closes all non-essential businesses, people can simply go to the next state to do their business or recreate. Crowded public gatherings in bars, restaurants and other public venues combined with unchecked travel by virus carriers with mild or no symptoms will drive exponential growth in transmission. In this same light, non-essential domestic air-travel has not been prohibited. How can local leaders seek to protect their communities and states when airplanes continue to traverse the nation, providing perfect vectors of disease transmission?

Unless every state and county puts in place strict measures to close public gatherings and limit travel, we are not going to flatten the curve, and health care systems across our country will be overwhelmed.

The ethos of the United States is firmly rooted in individual rights and freedoms, so the only way we can really change the trajectory of our current patch-work set of controls is for all states to work together. This can be done through groups like the Western Governors Association, where currently there is a list of initiatives to tackle regional issues such as stemming the spread of invasive species, but where there’s no indication of any form of coordination around preventing the spread of COVID 19. Region-wide efforts could quickly be amended and adapted to match those of neighboring regions, especially with leadership and guidance at the federal level, thereby creating a cohesive national strategy. This is essential.

To forge a gold-medal team, Pocock told Joe to “think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined.” Our nation’s states and counties need to pull together now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario.

We cannot delay.

Why Trump Is Winning Rural America

Addressing a room full of Wyoming county commissioners in mid-February, Wyoming Governor Gordon said something to the effect of, “If you want Wyoming to continue having a seat at the table, a true voice at the highest level, vote for Trump.” He went on to describe how the Trump Administration has given unprecedented voice to Wyoming, from the Governor’s administration down to town and county officials, insisting that he’s never seen anything like it before. He added, “I’m not trying to be political.” To which a Democrat sitting next to me responded, “That’s not being political!?”

But that’s exactly the point: to many citizens of Wyoming, that’s just straight talk reflecting a refreshing change in attitude and attention to rural people and places adopted by the Trump Administration. Governor Gordon is practical, as are people across Wyoming and other states throughout the West and Midwest. And the fact is, Wyoming citizens, for better (in the eyes of the vast majority of voters in Wyoming) or worse (in the eyes of environmental-minded people around the nation), now have more of a say over federal policies that impact their private property, their job prospects (largely in the energy industry), and over environmental rules (that in their eyes often look like handcuffs) than they’ve had in recent memory.

I’m a Democratic county commissioner in Wyoming, and here is what I see.

The Trump Administration gives rural counties unprecedented personal attention. At the first Western Interstate Region (WIR) county commissioner conference that I attended after President Trump’s election, an official with the USDA came up to me, asked which county I was from and said, “I’ve been hoping to meet with you.” Shortly thereafter he gave me information on available funding for rural sewer and water projects, broadband expansion, wildfire mitigation programs, and economic development efforts, along with information on how to apply. Handing me his card he said, “Call me if you have questions.” Nothing like that happened at any of the prior conferences I’d attended, and there has been follow up, including the FCC Chairman visiting to check on the results of a grant to expand broadband within the Wind River Indian Reservation and to remote Wyoming ranches.

Trump’s staff conducts regular outreach and communication to Wyoming counties. At least once a month we receive emails from the Department of Interior (DOI) with news about initiatives responsive to rural concerns, such as repealing the 2015 Rule Defining “Waters of the United States.” Updates include a list of DOI efforts, accomplishments and “DOI-in-the-news” headlines such as “Cattlemen applaud Trump’s regulatory relief,” “Bernhardt Meets in Montana about Grizzly Delisting Decision” and “Melania to visit Wyoming National Parks.” This never happened during the Obama years.

At the annual legislative conference for the National Association County officers (NACo) in Washington DC, the theme was the same. Commissioners from around the nation are regularly invited to the White House and to occasions such as State Leadership Days, where Secretary Bernhardt and other senior administration officials meet with local officials. We also receive numerous invitations from this Administration to participate in discussions about federal programs and initiatives to deal with invasive species, expand broadband, and learn about available grant funding and rural economic development programs. This never happened under President Obama.

County commissioners have had a seat at the table as the Trump Administration has rolled back, amended or sought to amend major environmental federal legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), rules such as the BLM Planning 2.0 Rule, and definitions such as the 2015 Waters of the US Act (WOTUS) – all issues with broad implications for how public and private land is managed throughout the West. When President Trump signed the bill repealing the BLM 2.0 Planning Rule, he invited a Wyoming commissioner to the ceremony, who gave the President his favorite cowboy hat in gratitude.

Wyoming is receiving this attention even though we’re hardly a swing state: President Trump’s net approval in Wyoming is the highest out of any state in the country. From the perspective of Governor Gordon, this expanded outreach happened when Trump came into office, and if he goes, Wyoming’s seat at the table goes. If Trump were a Democrat and taking action on issues from Grizzly delisting to streamlining NEPA to amending the Endangered Species Act, Governor Gordon would likely say the same thing. But Trump’s not a Democrat. And Democrat’s don’t seem to be paying much attention to rural counties, citizens and voters – this is going to be a problem for them.

Democratic presidential hopefuls simply aren’t reaching people in counties throughout the West, hearing our concerns or even speaking our language. Healthcare is a big issue everywhere, but the visceral appeal to voters of a presidential administration that places private property rights over common resource protections and focuses on the siren-call of well-paying mining jobs will always win the day, especially in areas of the country hit hardest by the decline in manufacturing and coal. Here in Wyoming, as in many other similar places, private property rights, decent-paying jobs (and yes, second amendment rights and “religious freedom”) outweigh hand-waving promises by Democratic candidates offering “socialized” healthcare, green new deals and $15 per hour minimum wages. After all, it’s the lost $80 per hour mining wage that actually matters to many in my state, while wonky distinctions between liberal, neoliberal, socialist and democratic socialist simply aren’t part of the vocabulary.

I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of electoral math, but 2016 should have made it obvious that if a presidential candidate can’t win a significant chunk of rural American, it is going to be very hard to win the White House. The Trump Administration’s outreach efforts are calculated and strategic. They play a big role in local lawmakers’ devotion to the President and will likely swing key states to Trump. The eventual Democratic nominee for President should take heed.

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