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Politics, innovation, and COVID-19: a conversation with Chris Rothfuss, PhD, the only pure scientist in American politics

Sen Chris Rothfuss - Xinova InnovatorCOVID-19 DIARY: Chris Rothfuss, PhD, Senate Minority Leader Wyoming Legislature

by Eliot Baker

The need for expert-informed leadership–not to mention scientific expertise–in politics has never been so glaring. Take this opportunity to meet Chris Rothfuss, PhD, the Senate Minority Leader of the Wyoming Legislature. He is a scientist through and through: chemical engineer, researcher, professor, analyst, consultant, and inventor. That makes him a unicorn in his day job as a politician.

He has lent his expertise to brainstorming solutions with Xinova to fight malaria in Nigeria. And he’d prefer to attack this crisis as an engineer, too.

“There is an engineering frustration in that I have a desire to put together solutions that get the job done. But the governance, the bureaucracy, the rules and regulations tend to require more  than just getting the job done, but also overcoming all these bureaucratic hurdles. Maybe in future policy, we need to understand that there’s a lot of ways to accomplish things when you really need to get them accomplished. The adage that ‘better is the enemy of good’ should be acknowledged when you get into situations of crises.”

And make no mistake, Dr. Rothfuss sees the crisis growing on Wyoming’s horizon. Although social distancing comes naturally to the mountainous expanses of Wyoming, the Cowboy State’s 212 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of April 7) represent an inaccurately low number due to woefully insufficient testing. And yet that number is rising on the same exponential curve as hotspots everywhere else. Not everyone is taking it seriously. They don’t see the problem, having been told by leadership early on that there was no problem. That it was a hoax.

There is a double-edged sword hanging over Wyoming and rural locations like it, said Dr. Rothfuss. Their isolation will delay the apex of an outbreak. But long-standing challenges to healthcare access, medical staffing and resources will make a pandemic doubly painful when it arrives. And then there’s the acute economic hardship coming to Wyoming, whose top two industries are fossil fuel and mineral extraction and tourism, both of which are already collapsing.

“Leadership matters and bad leadership can be catastrophic,” he said. “When you begin by denying it, then claim it’s a political hoax, and you spend your first few weeks of response time pretending you don’t have a problem, despite scientists and experts saying, ‘Oh, yes, we do’ (you have fed the catastrophe). The national security community was trying to raise awareness months ago and develop a response before it was too late.”

Politics, Innovation and COVID-19

The virus is apolitical and obeys no bureaucracy.

Coronavirus cuts through red tape

The virus is apolitical and obeys no bureaucracy. So too should be the approach to tracking and fighting it, he said.  The dearth of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gowns in Wyoming could be partly solved with innovative workarounds and hacks. He’s seen promising direct supply and 3D printing solutions, along with well-done DIY designs that will not overcome existing regulatory hurdles in time to make an impact.

“Even if we had sufficient availability of supplies and equipment, we have some bureaucratic hurdles requiring those supplies and equipment be certified by the FDA and the state lab. And honestly, to me, that’s more of the barrier that I’m seeing. I can identify and locate a large number of RT-PCR machines, I can identify and locate the supplies to make the media for viral transport. I can identify and actually supply nasal pharyngeal swabs by 3d printing them. We see folks around the world doing that. But the product of all of these engineering hacks would not be certified by the state lab and the FDA necessarily, so bureaucracy is also holding us back. And to me the greatest frustration are these self-inflicted challenges that we’re putting into place.”

That bureaucracy has thrust some scientists into the role of reluctant heroes. Such is the case of Dr. Helen Y. Chu,  the UW researcher whose ethics as a scientist compelled her to risk her career to put samples from her approved flu study through unapproved COVID-19 testing, despite official reprimands. As the death toll mounted from a COVID-19 outbreak at the nearby Lifecare elderly facility, she found evidence of the first case of community transmission in America. The glass was broken and the alarm was rung.

“It comes back to leadership. You know, leading involves making hard choices. If you’ve got a regulation that says, ‘I need to do X,’ and you just do X, you’re always covered. No one’s going to hold it against you that you made the wrong choice, because you made the choice you were told to make. And that’s the challenge, again, of a crisis. You need people that are capable to make the right choice because they are knowledgeable enough to do so–and then they have to be willing to make those hard choices.”

Expertise needed

Politics, Innovation and COVID-19

Eliminating the task forces that are tasked with preventing pandemic outbreaks might be a poor policy choice in the future.

Political leadership will be better equipped to face new challenges should the need for expertise be engraved into governmental institutional memory. After the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, which infected 60 million and killed 12,500 Americans in 2009, the government created a task force and a playbook to handle future outbreaks. Both were dissolved despite global expert consensus that a much worse pandemic was imminent, likely originating in China. The Coronavirus was expected.

“We should be learning from our poor response to COVID-19 that eliminating the task forces that are tasked with preventing pandemic outbreaks might be a poor policy choice in the future. And then maybe since this is costing the government trillions of dollars, a multi-million-dollar investment or a billion-dollar investment to head off these types of horrible circumstances are worth the investment.

As we move forward we also should put ourselves in a position where we are capable of responding more quickly and more robustly, where we are better resourced, with contingency plans that are appropriate to allow us to be having a perhaps second tier of the rules and regulations that we adhere to when we’re in a crisis, so that we don’t have all of the same uncertainty and panic and inability to be responsive in a timely manner as we are experiencing right now.”

Responsible media

Beyond a handful of medical doctors, virtually no scientists are in US politics (there are zero in the United States Senate). That scientific vacuum is painfully apparent in how the misinformation and disinformation shouted from all corners of the internet is worming its way into the ears of the influential and of the voters who depend on them for guidance. Dr. Rothfuss said the problem originates with how now, more than ever, multiple viewpoints are given equal weight regardless of the credibility of the source or the message.

This empowers confirmation bias. The scientific consensus—isolation and hardship for survival—is not a very sunny viewpoint. The alternative one may be more comforting.

“And so of the sources they’re looking to, and the veracity of the message, they just choose among a marketplace of messages. They may think, ‘Hey, this one being presented has got nice graphics, it’s on a computer screen, and therefore, somebody must know what they’re talking about to have written this down. So I’m going to choose to believe that one because it’s a better message. It’s one that I prefer.’ And I don’t know how we get past that, but it’s certainly what I see an awful lot of with my colleagues throughout the state that public opinion doesn’t necessarily evaluate the credibility of the source or the message but they choose what they most preferred to be true. And then it’s very dangerous.”

Fever pitch

Moreover, it can normalize radical and deeply unsettling opinions, such as the emerging talking point that millions of vulnerable Americans should be willingly sacrificed for the greater good of the economy. Even if that proves over time to be a valid conversation to have—and there are experts who it will have to be had once we flatten the curve and implement widespread testing—how can we trust that life or death decision to be made by a leadership resistant to science and facts?

“We don’t have a strong history in this country of that callous utilitarianism that you would need to have in place to implement a policy where we let 2% die so that the stock market can be robust and so that everyone can keep their job.  I don’t know that we want that. I realized that that’s a talking point that is circulating at this point in time, but it’s to me a rather horrifying future for us to select.

That said, there are incredibly hard choices that are being made right now that aren’t necessarily the best choices that can be made to simultaneously balanced the interests of the economy with the interests of public health and safety.”

Politics, Innovation and COVID-19

America is taking the COVID-19 test metaphorically and literally

The scientific vacuum at all levels of government has created an environment where misinformation and frightening viewpoints flourish. The COVID-19 virus is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, and at least twice as contagious. Estimates on deaths in the US alone range from a low of 300,000 to as high as 2.2 million. From Wyoming to Wuhan to Milan, the virus has turned each point of the globe into a node on a viral network throughout which misinformation accelerates the transmission of COVID-19.

Compare Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, stared into the camera and told her German citizens that 70% would be infected and hundreds of thousands would die. It was hard, cold truth. They would move forward with widespread testing and social distancing based on that scenario. Germany is now in far better shape than neighboring Italy, France and Spain.

“Angela Merkel gets it. She is a trained physicist. Her response was in such stark contrast to ours. And in crisis circumstances like this, it’s not about your political differences in the philosophy of governance. It really just comes down to cold hard facts. What are the models? What are the indicators? What is the best way to handle things?”

Meanwhile in America, COVID-19 was declared by the Executive branch to be no worse than the flu: a democratic hoax blown up by leftist media hype. A crisis of scientific fact was embellished with partisan dimensions. America is now the world’s largest hotspot for COVID-19, and remains poorly tested. New York hospitals are expected to be overwhelmed within the next two weeks, with other densely populated states to follow, and rural America likely to succumb after that. 

America is taking the COVID-19 test metaphorically and literally. Literally, we have failed the testing in terms of rigor and delivery. It’s up to our leadership and innovators to make sure we learn lessons of this failure to pass the larger societal and humanistic test posed by the pandemic and the shutdowns.

“I think that we will weather this storm. We need to come together and find ways to protect the people that are most affected by it. And then we need to learn from this experience so that we would be in a position to do better next time. I mean, the harsh reality is this could be much worse. The mortality rate could be much higher and it could be killing through all demographics instead of mostly the older and medically vulnerable populations. We should be prepared for a circumstance in the future where that super virus is in play and when that time comes, I truly hope we are informed by our mistakes from this pandemic in a manner that allows us to effectively address that future.”

-Chris Rothfuss, PhD,
Senate Minority Leader Wyoming Legislature
and Xinova Innovator








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