GOSHEN COUNTY – The Goshen County Commission hired Ted Church, M.D., as county health officer at their meeting on Jan. 19, replacing outgoing Health Officer Marion Smith, M.D., who served in the position since 2010.
Following interviews of both Church and Smith during a special meeting Friday evening, the GCC unanimously voted via a secret ballot to appoint Church.
“We want to thank Dr. Smith for all the years of service she has done,” County Commissioner Justin Burkart told the Telegram. “It’s an ungrateful job.”
Church, a retired medical doctor, previously practiced with Banner Health Clinic and Torrington Medical Group.
“I plan to do a good job for the community, try to keep the community safe, but recognize the government doesn’t grant us liberty, we protect our liberty from the government,” Church said. “There’s a lot of roles for the county health officer, the pandemic right now is taking first seat, but there are a whole lot of other things that are involved in the role of protecting the community from.”
According to Burkart, the commission scored the applicants’ answers to the prepared questions and used those scores to select a candidate.
The county health officer position is dictated by a Wyoming statute that gives them power to enforce closures and restrict gatherings when necessary to protect the public health. For this reason, GCC Chairman John Ellis said during the candidates’ interviews on Friday that the county needs someone with a “broad perspective” of all issues – economic, mental health, substance abuse, domestic abuse – that surround the pandemic.
“The person who sits in this position should be able to see and weigh all sides of the issue, both the health view and an economic view,” Ellis said during the special meeting. “The Goshen county people should come first, and then their views should go to the state.”
The GCC adopted a non-binding resolution to refrain from implementing county-level COVID-19 mandates in early August. At the time, public health officials made it clear the resolution did not supersede state health orders, and County Attorney Eric Boyer told the Telegram non-binding resolutions are “provided as a way to inform the public of how the commissioners intend to deal with that issue as elected officials.”
Smith has been at the helm of the county’s response to the pandemic since March, alongside Goshen County Public Health (GCPH). After signing onto a letter to Governor Mark Gordon with the state’s other county health officers in November requesting a statewide mask order, Smith issued one in Goshen County on Nov. 18, requiring face coverings be worn when a person is inside an indoor public space.
All of Wyoming is currently under mask mandate through at least Jan. 25, other than counties whose variances were approved by State Health Officer Alexia Harrist, M.D., due to low enough COVID-19 case numbers.
During his interview, Church told the commission he does not approve of the statewide mask mandate. He said he questions the efficacy of masks in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and believes in personal choice when it comes to wearing them.
“People that are concerned about their health, if they want to wear a mask, that is perfectly fine and they should do whatever they can do to protect themselves,” Church told the commissioners. “But there’s a lot of people that are either going to have the vaccine or they’re going to be recovered from COVID, who really shouldn’t be annoyed by the necessity to follow the rules that don’t really apply to them.”
In her interview, Smith stood by her decision to implement the county-wide mask mandate in November, citing masks as one method of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 that doesn’t have an economic impact on Goshen County. She told the commissioners on Friday she wanted to see the pandemic through.
“It’s been a really tough year, and I really feel like I poured my heart and soul into this,” Smith told the commissioners. “I know we’re going to get through it.”
Burkart said he personally sees the positive effects of the mask mandate, evidenced by the decline in coronavirus cases between November and January. As of press time Wednesday, Goshen County has 29 active COVID-19 cases, compared to 313 on Nov. 18, the day the mask order went into effect.
The County Health Officer serves a three year term that will end Dec. 31, 2024. Church’s term starts immediately, but Smith will help in a transition period that will last roughly a month, according to Burkart. Church said he’s met with GCPH staff and will continue to do so as he moves into the role.
“My general feeling is do what makes sense, follow the science,” he said.
Following Church’s appointment, Smith told the Telegram she hopes Goshen County will continue to abide by state health orders.
“We have been through so much and come so far,” Smith wrote in an email to the Telegram. “I would hate to see the ball dropped before the finish line.”