GREYBULL — U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., spoke in optimistic terms about the nation’s preparedness for potential second and third waves of the coronavirus but acknowledged the damage that the virus has already done to the state’s economy and psyche of its residents during a weekend visit to Greybull.
Appearing in the Days of ‘49 parade, Barrasso walked the route, waving to spectators and even shaking a few hands in his first parade appearance of the summer in Wyoming. It came as the state and nation were slowly reopening after being shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 110,000 American lives.
“Everybody in the country has been hit in one way or another by the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “Some places saw it more on the medical side, but in Wyoming, it’s been more on the economic side.
“The impact on agriculture, energy and tourism has really been damaging. It’s flatlined our economy, he continued. “What I’ve been trying to do is make sure we keep our small businesses viable until we can fully reopen — and we are seeing good signs of that today.”
Barrasso touted the Paycheck Protection Program, saying more than a billion dollars has been distributed to approximately 11,000 small businesses in the state.
“I want to make sure that the program is working,” he said, calling it a great success.
As a former physician and for 25 years the director of Wyoming Health Fairs, Barrasso also has a unique perspective on the challenges facing the state’s hospitals and health care workers.
“Rural hospitals all around the country, and especially here in Wyoming, will tell you they operate on slim financial margins, and that when they have to close down some of the services they offer because they are waiting for virus patients to come in, that it really hits the bottom line,” he said. “There are hospitals in Wyoming that haven’t admitted anyone with coronavirus, but their occupancy is way down because they’re only doing emergences.
“So much of what we did in the CARES act was to make sure we had money for rural hospitals to be held harmless during all of this.”
While something had to be done to slow the spread of the virus, Barrasso acknowledged the societal cost of prolonged shutdowns. “We see it in the form of substance abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse and suicides,” he said.
He also worries about people who delayed routine care, as well as those who missed the health screenings that typically occur during health fairs held around the state. Seven of those fairs have been cancelled this year, including the one in south Big Horn County.
“At every one of those health fairs, we do diagnostic blood testing looking for high cholesterol, thyroid, cancer, all those sorts of things. People didn’t have those tests this year,” he said. “There are also booths for the heart association and the diabetes association ... nobody benefited from those, either.
“So that’s my big concern,” he continued. “You can’t just say it’s coronavirus versus nothing; it’s coronavirus versus everything else. There are other health impacts that come from an active, healthy economy and people getting out and about. If your only focus is coronavirus, you’ll never leave the house.”
When asked about predictions of second and third waves of the virus, Barraso said the nation has made great strides. “We’re much better prepared right now because of testing, treatment and hospital capacity than we were when this thing first hit. In Wyoming, we did 2,000 tests this week. There are a lot of tests available. We are testing nursing home residents all the time. These are things we couldn’t do before.
“The entire month of March in this country, we did a million tests — now we’re doing a million tests every two days,” he said. “We’ve really ramped that up. Testing is available and we aren’t flying blind.”
Barrasso said he is encouraged by what he’s hearing about Remdesivir in the treatment of coronavirus patients. “It’s not a home run, but it’s a single or a double,” he said, citing studies that show the drug is reducing the length of hospital stays.
He is also hopeful of a vaccine breakthrough, although he conceded it could take some time. “It’s hard to make 300 million of anything,” he said. “But right now, we’re doing everything we can to make sure we get there by the end of the year or January. There are five promising vaccines. We aren’t sure which will be best — but Congress has approved money to get to 300 million of each.
“Some of it will be wasted money, which we hate to do. But at the same time, we might find one is better for older people, another is better for younger people. We want to make sure that once we know those answers, once we know what’s best for each person, it’s available.”
Barrasso also discussed the recent killing of an unarmed, African-American man in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement in general.
“What happened to George Floyd should never happen to anyone in America — and anyone who sees the video of him handcuffed and saying he couldn’t breath as another person kneeled on his neck for eight minutes, knows it should never happen. It hurts your heart to see it.”
He applauded the residents of Wyoming for the peaceful nature of their protests. But in other parts of the country, he said the movement “was hijacked by violent criminals trying to take over cities by looting, rioting and setting things on fire.”
Barrasso said he believes police officers need more resources to do their jobs.
“I’m completely opposed to people saying defund the police,” he said. “That’s the wrong way to go. We need to support police and law enforcement and do it in ways, like proper training, so what happened to George Floyd never happens again.”
Barrasso said he supports putting body cameras on all police officers.
“But they cost a lot of money and you can’t expect every police department to go out and buy them,” he said. “I think they need money from Washington to do that. We need to make sure all officers have those cameras — and if they happen to turn them off when something bad happens, that’s an offense.”
He said more must also be done to weed out bad police officers, like the one now facing second-degree murder charges in Floyd’s death.
He suggested a national database for police officers, similar to the one already in place for physicians. That database makes it more difficult for doctors who face disciplinary action in one state to jump around to other states seeking new employment.
“We were worried at one time about doctors having trouble in other places trying to come here,” he said. “But it can happen in any profession. It happens with the police. I believe it’s a small number, but we need to find ways to make sure the bad ones aren’t patrolling our streets. They aren’t keeping us safe; they are putting us more at risk.”