By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
Dr. Alexia Harrist can remember the morning she checked one of the infectious diseases websites she regularly follows.
It showed a strange outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, a city Harrist had never even heard of.
As a trained epidemiologist (someone who studies and analyzes the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations), it was fascinating to see this pop up, but she didn’t think much about it.
Just a few months later, that strain of pneumonia turned out to be the coronavirus, a newly discovered virus that would cause a pandemic.
As Wyoming’s state health officer, Harrist has been thrust into the spotlight over the last three months, regularly providing updates to the state about the coronavirus and health orders stemming from it.
She loves her job, but admitted she never expected to become such a public figure when she took over the role as health officer.
“I know my role is to protect public health,” she said. “Dealing with a pandemic like this is something I never imagined would have to be done. I’ve been a part of making decisions I never expected. But thankfully, I’m not alone and I have a ton of support from my team at the Department of Health.”
Harrist has been the state epidemiologist with the Wyoming Department of Health since March 2017 and officially became the state health officer in late 2018. She’d been filling the role as the interim officer since the summer of 2017 when Dr. Wendy Braund left the position.
Originally, Harrist is from the Boston area, growing up there and attending college in the region. She went to Philadelphia for graduate and medical school, but fell in love with Wyoming when she spent two years at WDH for a medical fellowship.
“I’m an outdoors person, so I just loved the mountains, the skiing, mountain biking, all of it,” Harrist said. “I also loved being at the Department of Health, so when I got the chance to come back as state epidemiologist, I took it.”
As the state epidemiologist, Harris’t job is to oversee disease control and surveillance. She and her team track diseases that have public health significance and prevent further transmission.
In her role as state health officer, Harrist is more involved in health policies surrounding disease prevention and control. She also advises and provides input for numerous activities taking place in WDH regarding disease prevention.
While Harrist didn’t expect to take on the role of state health officer when she joined WDH in 2017, she found that she enjoyed working through policies and a broader variety of activities.
But since March, she and basically every other county health officer and health care provider across the state have been inundated with the coronavirus.
“We’ve all been working long hours, because the virus doesn’t care what day it is or what time it is,” she said. “I already knew my team was great, but to see them come together and step up to this challenge, it’s been incredible.”
Harrist touted her team’s work doing contact tracing, where they find a person infected with the virus and find everyone that person has recently been in contact with. She also praised the state’s Public Health Laboratory, which has been kicked into high gear to get test results out quickly and efficiently.
While she is saddened by the 17 deaths Wyoming has seen due to the virus, Harrist feels that by taking early action with health orders, the state was able to prevent many more coronavirus cases and deaths.
However, she doesn’t believe the state, country or world is anywhere near to being out of the woods when looking at the virus. She urged caution moving forward, noting that wearing face coverings and continuing to social distance will likely be a part of everyone’s lives for the foreseeable future, at least until a vaccine or treatment for the virus is created.
“The pandemic isn’t over,” she said. “We expect to see more cases and more deaths. But I do think we’ve had success in slowing the transmission and we’ve prevented more people from dying.”
In the last few months, Harrist has learned that tough decisions have to be made when it comes to people’s safety, something not everyone appreciates.
She knows there have been detractors, those who don’t like the orders she issued with Gov. Mark Gordon that closed some businesses and restricted some activities, such as large gatherings of people.
But she praised Wyoming citizens for their vigilance, saying that they’re the real reason the coronavirus didn’t spread throughout the state as originally expected.
“I’ve learned that if you make a right decision for public health, there are people who will support those decisions,” she said. “In terms of public health, these are absolutely some of the hardest decisions we have had to make. You have to look at the possibility of deaths, the severe illnesses we’ve seen and the knowledge that people’s livelihoods would be affected. I think we did the right things, but time will tell.”