By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
A Washakie County physician has been removed as the county’s public health officer because of his decision to seek a public health order mandating the use of face masks in public, he said.
However, the chairman of the Washakie County Commission said the termination of the contract of Dr. Ed Zimmerman had nothing to do with the public health order.
Zimmerman, in a Facebook post, announced that county commissioners, during a special meeting on Monday, terminated his contract as the county’s health officer.
“As many of you know, the County Commissioners were very unhappy with my decision to issue a Countywide mask mandate,” he said in his post. “The County Commissioners permission, however, was not needed to issue a mask mandate. This system is in place to ensure that medical decisions for the county are not overruled by those in political office.”
Fred Frandson, the commission’s chairman, declined to discuss the specific reason for the contract’s termination, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.
He referred to published reports about a commission meeting last week.
“You can read the … report of the county commissioners meeting that happened and you would understand this isn’t about a mask,” he said.
Zimmerman’s post said he met with commissioners for several hours to discuss the reasoning behind the order that was approved by state public health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist.
“I am profoundly disappointed and personally feel that our County Commissioners have chosen politics over the safety of Washakie County residents while in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
Zimmerman was one of more than a dozen county health officers to ask the state to approve county-level mask orders.
In at least two other counties, Uinta and Carbon, commissioners said they were not told about the orders until the requests for their approval had been submitted to the state.
State law does not appear to require county commissioners to approve public health orders and it specifies that county health officers are under the “direction and supervision” of the state Department of Health.
Zimmerman said he felt the mask order was necessary to save lives.
“At this point, I believe everyone in Washakie County knows the masks are strongly recommended, yet VERY few followed the recommendations,” he said. “I believe that a masking mandate will save several lives of Washakie County residents and I do not regret signing the mandate.”
Washakie County commissioners, in an open letter to county residents issued last week, said in seeking the order, Zimmerman acted without the input of an emergency operations team that included Zimmerman, county commissioners, law enforcement personnel and others.
“The decision on Nov. 18 to go to a mask mandate effectively took the commission and the team out of the decision-making process,” the letter said. “The Washakie County Commissioners are evaluating our options in regard to re-establishing our management and influence back into decisions made for Washakie County and we will make a decision soon.”
The letter said commissioners were concerned the mandate could have the opposite of its desired effect.
“We are concerned that the angst against the mask mandate will make people resistant to doing what they need to do to protect themselves, our families, and our community from the spread of Covid 19,” the letter said.
Commissioners urged residents to take precautions including the use of a face mask if social distancing is impossible to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“We can all be proactive in our individual choices instead of waiting for someone to make a mandate,” the letter said. “Ultimately, this matter is up to each and every county resident.”