2020 Winter Meeting: Western Governors meet to share work on COVID-19, wildfire response, technology and healthcare

The Western Governors’ Association 2020 Winter Meeting featured the Governors discussing their ongoing work to manage the impact of COVID-19 and their response to this year’s widespread wildfire season, as well as conversations with special guests about broadband, technology, and healthcare.

Twelve Western Governors participated in the meeting, held virtually on Dec. 10 and hosted by WGA Chair and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. They included WGA Vice Chair, Governor Brad Little of Idaho, and Governors Doug Ducey (Arizona), Gov. Jared Polis (Colorado), Lou Guerrero (Guam), David Ige (Hawaii), Steve Bullock (Montana), Steve Sisolak (Nevada), Doug Burgum (North Dakota), Kevin Stitt (Oklahoma), Gary Herbert (Utah), and Mark Gordon (Wyoming).

The meeting showcased special guests such as Microsoft President Brad Smith and Project Echo founder Dr. Sanjeev Arora in conversations with the governors, as well as remarks about pandemic response by Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Western Governors also formally approved five policy resolutions on Strengthening the State-Federal Relationship, Utilizing State Data in Federal Decision Making, Wild Horse and Burro Management, National Forest and Rangeland Management, and Species Conservation and the Endangered Species Act. Read the resolutions.

The meeting opened with a special video about Western Governors’ decisive response to the unprecedented challenges of 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the destructive wildfire season.  The Governors also recorded ‘Welcome Videos’ for attendees about issues facing their states, from COVID-19 response to natural resource management. View them here. Other meeting highlights included:

Welcome and Opening Remarks: WGA Executive Director Jim Ogsbury opened the meeting with introductions of the Western Governors, followed by a keynote from WGA Chair and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. The Governor offered an update on the work done by WGA in recent months on her central policy effort, the Electric Vehicles Roadmap Initiative. Among other things, the Governor noted that an emphasis on the expansion of electric vehicles enables the use of energy sources such as solar, wind and water that are “found right here in the West.” And she added, “facilitating electric vehicles isn’t a political imperative, it’s an economic one.” (Watch the keynote)

COVID-19 and State Leadership: The day’s first Governors’ roundtable was moderated by Oregon Governor Kate Brown, and included WGA Vice Chair, Governor Brad Little (Idaho), as well as Governors Jared Polis (Colorado), Gary Herbert (Utah), Lou Guerrero (Guam), and Kevin Stitt (Oklahoma). Discussion highlights included: Gov. Little on consistently messaging the importance of social distancing; Gov. Stitt’s focus on getting children back to in-person schooling as soon and safely as possible; Gov. Polis on current state efforts to support those impacted by the pandemic and future plans to “build back better”; Gov. Guerrero sharing about a campaign to encourage community participation to meet safety goals; and the University of Utah study commissioned by Gov. Herbert to illustrate how wearing face masks increases public safety.

Remarks, Alex Azar: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services outlined the administration’s work in collaboration with states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, he focused on improvements in testing, supply chain, data, and the development of COVID treatments and vaccines. On the latter topic, the Secretary also stressed the importance of streamlining the process to enable as many people as possible to be vaccinated.

Conversation with Brad Smith: The President of Microsoft engaged with Governors Doug Burgum of North Dakota and David Ige of Hawaii about issues such as broadband availability and how technology has enabled government, the private sector, and education to adapt during the pandemic. When it comes to broadband, Smith said “the most shocking thing today is that we don’t have an accurate map of who does and who doesn’t have broadband in this country.” Smith also shared Microsoft’s work to upskill more than 25 million people to acquire more technical skills as well as the use of data to improve healthcare. (Watch the Session)

Wildfire Response in the West: The Governors, in a session moderated by WGA Vice Chair, Governor Brad Little of Idaho, discussed the year’s extreme wildfire season. Gov. Little opened with the reminder that “wildfire isn’t a partisan issue” and noted that past land management practices have increased fuel loads across the West. Gov. Steve Bullock (Montana) cited past collaborative work by Western Governors to solve issues such as “fire-borrowing” as an example of how they might work together in the future. Gov. Mark Gordon (Wyoming) highlighted the need for those living in wildland urban interfaces to be educated about the challenges of living in those areas. Gov. Jared Polis (Colorado) praised Western Governors for their collaboration during this fire season. The session concluded with remarks by Kim Zagaris of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, who advocated for increased mitigation as an effective way to reduce the amount spent on suppression. (Watch the session)

Conversation with Dr. Sanjeev Arora: Governors Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Mark Gordon of Wyoming had an insightful exchange with the founder of Project ECHO. Dr. Arora explained how the "tele-mentoring" model he created for health care, which enables specialists to share their knowledge with a wider network of medical providers, has grown to be a worldwide force. The Governors also learned how that model can support healthcare in the West, including the upcoming need for education about the need for COVID-19 vaccinations. (Watch the session)

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