Only one bill emerged from the seven-day special session recently convened by the Wyoming Legislature dedicated to fight the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but that legislation speaks centrally to the impetus for the session.

The legislation appropriates $4 million to the governor’s office for future litigation related to the mandate, and features a resolution to set the stage for Wyoming’s legal standing and right to defy the order. An early version of this bill dedicated only $250,000 to the cause, while a later version devoted $10 million.

“It was pretty much a no-win situation because the legislators were asked to do things we really can’t do,” State Sen. R.J. Kost (R-Powell) said. “The place it needs to go is the courts.”

House Bill 1002 was passed with a 20-6 vote in the Senate and approved by both chambers. It was sent to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for his signature.

At the Park County Republican Party meeting on Thursday night, Cody resident Bill Bienblamed the lack of passed legislation on Gordon’s lack of involvement during the session. Gordon gave a statement at the beginning of the session and commended the lawmakers’ work afterward, but otherwise did not take part in the legislative process.

“It’s like you guys are herding a bunch of cattle down there and nobody is driving you,” Bien said to State Sen. Tim French (R-Cody).

At this meeting French expressed deep frustration with how the special session went.

“For spending seven days in the chamber, a whole lot of time and money, it didn’t do a lot for the people in this state,” he said.

State Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) had similar thoughts.

“I am disappointed in the outcome of the special session,” she said. “I would have liked to have seen a stronger bill passed, one that included exemptions.”

Rodriguez-Williams co-sponsored House Bill 1003, a piece of legislation prohibiting discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status by health insurance companies. The bill was not considered in the House. French sponsored an identical version of this bill in the Senate that died on a 15-13 vote.

One common debate brought up during the special session concerned employees’ and employers’ rights. In the end, every bill intended to prohibit businesses from requiring their employees to be vaccinated was rejected.

Rodriguez-Williams was pleased by the public attendance during the special session, saying the “galleries in the Senate and the House were full of people opposed to the vaccine mandate” and noting that a “Freedom Rally” was held outside on the Capitol steps.

Last Friday morning, the state filed its lawsuit against federal vaccine mandates planned for businesses with more than 100 employees. Wyoming is joined by 10 other states in the lawsuit that was filed in response to the emergency, temporary standard issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. A petition for judicial review was filed in the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier Friday, and a motion for stay is expected to be filed early this week.

A separate petition filed by the attorneys general of seven more states also asked a federal appeals court to block the mandate. Wyoming and several other states also filed a motion for preliminary injunction in the previously filed suit against the Biden Administration regarding vaccine mandates for federal contractors. Harriet Hageman, a frontrunner Republican opposing U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for re-election in 2022, is serving as co-counsel on the lawsuit.

“We have prepared for this moment, and the attorney general has a strong legal strategy she developed with a coalition of other attorneys general,” Gordon said. “We cannot allow the rights of Wyoming citizens and her industries to be trampled on by federal overreach.”

Wyoming has already challenged President Joe Biden’s executive order, which put a vaccine mandate in place for federal contractors. Attorney General Bridget Hill is also actively reviewing and considering a legal strategy related to a vaccine mandateby the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that all employees be vaccinated.

Cody Regional Health CEO Doug McMillan sent an email to his employees on Friday, saying due to the Medicare and Medicaid rule, it will suspend without pay all employees who do not have one vaccine shot by Dec. 4, and two shots by Jan. 4.

Park County Republican Party President Martin Kimmet said he plans to meet with hospital staff soon to discuss this matter.

Votes and blowback

There were 41 total bills initiated during the special session. House Bill 1001 was a finalist, but killed on a 15-13 vote Wednesday morning.

“We thought (House Bill) 1002 was more of a feel good-type thing, while we thought 1001 was the thing to discuss,” French said. “Once again, they defeated it.”

This bill was more of a direct attack on the federal mandate and said no employer in the state of Wyoming could require the COVID-19 vaccine. The legislation would have required state and county health officers to approve every waiver of mask mandates and vaccine requirements imposed on K-12 students within seven days of submission, regardless of the reasons for seeking the exemption.

French said it appeared the bill had enough votes to pass, but three senators changed their votes at the last minute. Kost was one of the 13 senators to vote against it.

Kost voted against five other bills in the special session, supported two, and declared a conflict of interest with one.

In response to his actions, the Park County Republican Party is sending a letter to Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Hill requesting they investigate Kost for having an alleged conflict of interest by participating in these votes because he sits on the Powell Valley Healthcare board.

Wyoming law considers a conflict of interest when a public servant requests or receives financial benefit, other than lawful compensation, on any contract or appointment where their decisions are concerned.

“Is it a direct effect to me or is it something bigger than myself?” Kost explained.

Kost said he conferred with the Legislative Service Office and his attorney Tracy Copenhaver before engaging in the special session, with both groups advising he was free from conflicts.

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. “I’m trying to make the right thing. It’s just a misunderstanding.”

Powell committeeman Troy Bray, who in September sent a vulgar email to a state senator, made the original motion to request an investigation of Kost. The party agreed to adopt the request with a unanimous vote.

When it came to French’s bill outlawing health insurance discrimination, it was brought to Kost’s attention he might have a conflict of interest because of an amendment he made to the legislation, so he said he decided to err on the side of caution and not vote on the bill even though the amendment got pulled.

“I knew everything I was doing was legitimate,” he said. “I knew it was not covering Powell more than any other hospital in the state.”

Campaign finance filings show the Wyoming Hospital Association PAC donated $500 to Kost’s 2018 campaign.

Alternatives

If passed, Anthony Bouchard’s (R-Cheyenne) Senate Bill 1012 would have made it a requirement for pharmacists to accept any prescription a doctor makes in fighting COVID-19. It would also have made it illegal for any medical board to suspend or revoke the license of a practitioner who prescribed a medication other than the vaccine in fighting COVID-19. This bill failed introduction to the Senate on a 18-11 vote.

“We were so frustrated,” French said.

Ivermectin has become a rallying point for the far-right faction of the Republican Party in recent months. Both the CDC and the FDA have issued advisories in recent months warning against using ivermectin to treat COVID-19. Though the drug is an FDA-approved prescription medication, it is typically used to treat infections caused by parasitic worms in developing nations.

State legislators in Tennessee and Alaska recently debated various ways to increase access to ivermectin — with proposals such as shielding doctors from repercussions for prescribing it, or forcing pharmacists to fill questionable prescriptions. Tennessee’s package passed.

The Republican attorney general in Nebraska also addressed the controversy and said that doctors can legally prescribe ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 as long as they obtain appropriate consent. In Montana, a monoclonal antibody treatment clinic was opened in Butte.

A study released by the American Journal of Therapeutics in July found with a low threshold of evidence that ivermectin reduced COVID-19 infection by an average 86% and death by an average of 62%, but secondary outcomes provided low to very low certainty of evidence. In conclusion, it stated there was moderate-certainty evidence to show that large reductions in COVID-19 deaths are possible using ivermectin.

“Using repurposed medications may be especially important because it could take months, possibly years, for much of the world’s population to get vaccinated, particularly among LMIC (low and middle-income) populations,” according to the clinical analysis.

Other studies have shown a wide gamut of outcomes due to taking ivermectin, ranging from positive to negative. The National Institutes of Health does not recommend use of ivermectin in fighting COVID-19 in anything other than clinical trials.

Evidence regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is more concrete and backed up by Federal Drug Administration’s approval. The vaccines are about 86-89% effective against preventing infection, but a recent study of 800,000 veterans who received the vaccines showed prevention reduced to 35-85% six months after receiving it.

(Zac Taylor contributed to this report)

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