Oklahoma's interim epidemiologist wants to work in facts, not politics

Dr. Jared Taylor (center) stands with interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister at an event in Stillwater. Taylor serves as the state’s interim epidemiologist.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Dr. Jared Taylor is blunt and clear-spoken about his assessment of COVID-19, but his take is distinctly nonpartisan.

Taylor said politics swirl around the pandemic, but those are separate from his job description, and he has no interest in engaging in politics.

Taylor said face masks work to slow the spread of COVID-19, but he won’t say if they should be mandated. That’s a policy decision, not an epidemiological one.

In August, the 46-year-old became the state’s third epidemiologist since March. As epidemiologist, Taylor said it is his job to take the latest disease science, facts and information and try to translate that so it can be crafted into recommendations, advisements or policies by state and local leaders.

Leaders are increasingly counting on his nonpartisan, fact-based advice as they attempt to craft policies to tackle one of the most politically polarizing issues in recent history.

“Dr. Taylor is an experienced epidemiologist with a wide range of experience,” said Dr. Lance Frye, the interim commissioner of health. “I have absolute confidence in his ability to serve Oklahomans and continue to provide guidance as we continue to battle and contain the spread of COVID-19.”

Taylor reads and digests the newest COVID-19 science and information. He then meets with state and local leaders and communicates about the disease.

“There are some things that are factual and scientific and data driven, and there’s where I reside,” he said. “How do we weigh a human life against mental health or against economic considerations? Those are political decisions. So I need to be able to deliver to any of these people a fair and accurate characterization of what is the burden of this disease.”

With 10 deaths per day on average over the last two weeks, COVID-19 has become the third leading cause of death in Oklahoma — behind heart disease and cancer, he said.

“Look, if folks want to say ‘Well that’s fine. Those people were going to die of something anyway,’ that’s their judgment to make,” Taylor said. “But I need to be able to deliver them the information, which is true and accurate, that there are individuals dying from this disease or people whose lives are being greatly disrupted and try to quantify that and allow them to make a judgment of how important that is.”

When the state asked if he’d be willing to take the job on an interim basis, Taylor said he initially didn’t want it but realized someone had to do it.

An Oklahoma State University professor who works in the veterinary pathobiology department, taking the job meant a nearly three-hour daily commute from his home in Morrison, about 30 minutes north of Stillwater. It also meant giving up his teaching load for the semester.

Taylor said he plans to serve as interim epidemiologist until the state completes a nationwide search for a permanent replacement, then he’ll return to the job he loves at OSU.

However, Taylor said he’s glad he accepted the job because it gives him the opportunity “to make strides and improvements and growth” in how the state communicates about COVID-19. He’ll also be able to spearhead a shift from data to information about transmission points, interventions that are working and communities that should be targeted to slow the spread.

“Dr. Taylor brings a tremendous background both in veterinary science and in epidemiology,” said John Budd, the state’s chief operating officer. “The reason that the veterinary science piece is important is that a lot of diseases actually start in the animal community, first of all. Second of all, human beings are animals, so the science that he brings from his background is dead on the right thing for the state to have as we try to manage epidemics going forward.”

Taylor though said he’s not naïve enough to believe that everyone is going to see things the way he does.

On one extreme, are the deniers — Oklahomans who think the pandemic and its response is overblown. On the other extreme, are the purists — Oklahomans who think things should remain shuttered to stop the spread.

Taylor said perhaps the clearest illustration of that divide is the debate over how the state has chosen to tackle reopening schools and education. Taylor’s analysis found there are definite values, attributes and qualities to having students in the classroom.

If the state adopted an absolute purist perspective of trying to eliminate any risk of COVID in schools, Taylor said it also has to recognize the huge tradeoffs and negative consequences of not having students in class.

Taylor said his job is to try to help state leaders find the balance.

“Not everyone’s going to be happy with where we end up, and I recognize that,” he said. “Neither the public health purists nor the disease deniers are going to be happy. But, we’re trying to serve the best interests of all Oklahomans, particularly Oklahoma’s children in these decisions.”

He said some Oklahomans view COVID-19 — and the recommended wearing of face coverings — as the latest public health versus personal rights and liberties battle.

That debate is not new. People have long fought over vaccinations, seatbelt laws, smoking restrictions and their right to dump waste into water supplies, he said.

Still Taylor said the state’s COVID-19 interventions have the opportunity to work.

He encouraged Oklahomans to social distance and wear face coverings in close proximity to others.

“We really can improve the health of Oklahomans and open and have school and do all of the things we want to, if we can get everyone to take this seriously and engage in those behaviors,” he said.

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Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma Capitol Bureau Chief for CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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