By Alexis Barker, Newcastle News Letter Journal
NEWCASTLE — After the denial of their most recent public health order variance requests, the Weston County Commissioners voted 4-1 on Jan. 5 to remove Dr. Mike Jording, the county’s public health officer. Jording has been serving the community in that capacity since 2004.
Appointed by the commissioners, Jording was paid $1,050 a month for the position of county health officer forWeston County. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, an additional $2,222 went to Jording from out of CARES Act funding from the federal government and state.
The commissioners conducted a lengthy discussion before the vote. Chairman Marty Ertman and Commissioners Ed Wagoner, Nathan Todd and Don Taylor voted to remove Jording. Commissioner Tony Barton was the sole nay vote.
As previously reported, the commissioners requested a variance from Gov. Mark Gordon’s public health orders, particularly regarding the restriction on operating hours for bars and restaurants. Ertman was adamant that the businesses should be open so that those celebrating the New Year holiday would remain in town rather than continue their celebrations out of town after the state’s mandated closing hours.
Jording and Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state public health officer, later denied the variances requested. Discussion over Jording’s continued employment with the county had occurred prior to the most recent variance denial, with the commissioners saying on Jan. 5 that the most recent incident was the last straw.
“I am not happy with the status quo. … I have a new feeling for Dr. Jording’s view on protecting the quote-unquote vulnerable in our community. … But I still take a lot of issue with the current mandates in affect,” Todd said over the phone during the meeting.
Taylor, Ertman and Wagoner all shared similar sentiments, expressing frustration with the health orders and the lack of communication between Jording and the board.
Barton, on the other hand, expressed concern over the potential removal of Jording from the public health officer position.
“I have respect for Jording and the tough situation he has been put into. … He has done a good job of walking a fairly thin line. I wish there wasn’t a mask mandate, but I don’t think it is restricting my freedom,” Barton said. “My freedom ends where someone’s begins. … This shouldn’t be about our rights; it should be about what is the compassionate and Christian thing to do for our neighbors. That is the heartburn I have.”
Ertman said her biggest “heartburn” over the whole situation is the lack of communication from Jording on the requested variances. She stated that he had previously said he would discuss any concerns with them but that he had failed to contact any commissioners before sending the variances to the state with his expressed disapproval.
“There was no communication. He just sent it on to the state officer to do it, if that is where we are going and what we are doing,” Ertman said, noting that if the board fired Jording, the county would rely on the state health officer until another was chosen.
“I have the upmost respect for Jording, but he has drank the Kool-Aid. He isn’t doing what is best for Weston County. …This is not a one-shoe-fits-all scenario. It never has been and it is killing us. We have the ability to open our businesses, and safely in my opinion,” said Sheriff Bryan Colvard to the commissioners.
On Dec. 29, Jording provided an explanation for the variance denial to the News Letter Journal in an email. According to Jording, the variance requests were “wide-ranging and lacked consideration for the possible effects on transmission rates of COVID-19 infection in Weston County.”
Jording included both his reasoning and the response he received from Harrist in the email, stating that while conditions looked to be improving in Weston County on Dec. 15 when the variances were requested, this was not the case for all of the considered matrixes.
“Counties need to have sustained low rates of transmission for a period of time at least two weeks before a less restrictive variance is appropriate,” Harrist said in her email. “Although we have seen the rates of newly reported cases and active cases decline in many areas of the state during the past several weeks, including Weston County, as compared to several weeks ago, transmission levels continue to be high according to national standards in both Wyoming and Weston County.”
She reported the county had 289 cases per 100,000 in the Dec. 8-22 period, in what was then the previous two weeks. That case rate put the county in the “red zone,” according to Harrist. In order to move to a lower transmission zone, Harrist said, the county would need 201 or fewer cases per 100,000.
“Furthermore, the number of cases in Weston County has increased over the past week. On Wednesday, December 16, Weston County’s rate of new cases was 231 per 100,000 population with 12 laboratory-confirmed active cases, today the rate of new cases is 289 cases per 100,000 with 27 laboratory-confirmed active cases,” Harrist continued.
The email also stated that Weston County had a lower molecular test positivity rate over the previous 14 days but that the number of molecular tests being conducted does not meet minimum requirements. She noted that the amount of testing would need to double to climb up one zone and that it would need to triple to put the county in the “green” zone.
“Conducting an adequate number of tests is critical to ensure that individuals who test positive can be isolated, and that their contacts can be notified to quarantine,” Harrist said.
“Based on the levels of transmission in Weston County, variances to all of the statewide orders are not appropriate to protect public health at this time,” Harrist continued. “However, I would be happy to discuss a potential variance to a portion of the orders, such as the restaurant and bar closures as you mentioned.”
According to Jording, if the commissioner’s had requested a variance to just the hour restrictions on bars and restaurants, the variance would have been approved. However, Jording said that the commissioners asked that all restrictions on bars and restaurants be rescinded, something that could not be approved.
“In my note to Dr. Harrist, I asked her if she would consider a variance request for the ‘10 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ As you can see in Dr. Harrist’s letter, she heard the question and responded favorably,” Jording said. “My suggestion to the commissioners may have fallen on deaf ears; news reporters picked up on it and printed it. So, we are where we are right now.
“I feel like I have been open to every Weston County resident, business or organization to develop variance requests and answer questions about the governor’s orders — everyone except the commissioners have been approachable,” Jording continued. “As far as I know, the commissioners have never sought advice from me or a public health officer on what variance request may pass and what may not pass.”
Both Jording and Harrist had little to say about the commissioner’s decision to remove Jording.
“The commissioners have not formally notified me of their action or the reason for their action. I have learned of the action from colleagues and friends who have contacted me,” Jording said, some 24 hours after the vote.
While expressing appreciation for Jording’s support and dedication to protecting public health, Harrist declined further comment when contacted on Jan. 6.
Until the position is filled, Harrist said, she will help the public health nursing office in the county and perform certain limited duties as needed.