Rep. Roy Edwards’ battle with COVID-19 lasted a little more than two weeks before he died in Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, his son Mitch Edwards said.
Though the family did not immediately release details about Edwards’ death, Mitch Edwards said during his father’s funeral Nov. 7 that he had contracted the virus. The lawmaker was Wyoming’s first known public official to die from complications of COVID-19.
The first time Edwards (R-Gillette) felt unwell was Oct. 18, when he awoke with a runny nose. He believed, and a health worker he visited agreed, allergies caused the ailment, his son told WyoFile Tuesday.
Edwards quarantined himself from the beginning, his son said, skipping a church service Oct. 18 — though by then COVID-19 was already present in that congregation Another lawmaker, Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), leads that church. Later in the week, Edwards felt well enough to move around the house, spending time on his computer and watching television, his son said.
Then suddenly, the virus hit hard.
On Oct. 23, Edwards was on the couch watching television and found he had trouble catching his breath, his son said. His wife of 44 years took him to the hospital in Gillette at around 10:30 that night. Edwards tested positive for COVID-19. A lung scan showed he had COVID-pneumonia — a condition of severe cases of the disease in which the lungs fill with fluid and become inflamed, leading to breathing difficulties.
Healthcare workers flew Edwards to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. The lawmaker had hoped to go to the hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he had previously received treatment for other matters, his son said. However, that hospital was prioritizing in-state residents. Like Wyoming and all its surrounding states, South Dakota is confronting a surge in virus cases and hospitalizations.
Mitch Edwards was grateful to the doctors and nurses at WMC, he said, who made room for his father and updated the family often on his condition. “We particularly appreciate the nurse who let us Zoom with my dad and who was with him on his last day,” Mitch Edwards said.
The lawmaker’s family was unable to be with him at the end, his son said. Edwards was given supplemental oxygen and initially seemed to recover — another illusionary step in the rollercoaster of COVID-19’s attack on the body. Hospital workers told the Edwards that Roy was their “healthiest patient,” Mitch Edwards said in remarks made at his father’s Nov. 7 funeral service, which was streamed online.
The night of Oct. 30 or the early morning of Oct. 31, Roy Edwards’ condition again deteriorated. The hospital alerted the family the next morning that Edwards would be intubated and put on a ventilator to try to maintain the function of his struggling lungs.
“Sunday [Nov. 1] we were told he was not doing well and that his lung had partially collapsed,” his son said. His father died the next morning at 10:32.
Edwards was 66 years old and “as far as we knew he was in good health,” his son said, “maybe like most Americans a little overweight.”
The hospital repeatedly referred to his dad as “doing well considering he was a smoker,” Mitch Edwards said, but his father had never smoked and the family thought perhaps health workers were confusing their patients. However, now he wonders “was there something wrong with his lungs that we didn’t know about?” he said.
Mitch Edwards does not believe an earlier, quicker diagnosis would necessarily have saved his father, he said. Perhaps his father could have monitored his blood oxygen levels using a pulse oximeter, Edwards said. “But that’s all I can really think of and I don’t know if that would have even changed things,” he said.
At the funeral service, family and friends described Edwards as a humorous man deeply dedicated to his faith, his family and his political convictions. Edwards was a longtime politician who served on the Gillette City Council, then the county commission, then in the state Legislature. He was also known to those close to him as someone who loved his work traveling to northeast Wyoming ranches to repair the tires on farm and ranch equipment, a father who loved being with his three children and later a grandfather who doted on his six grandchildren.
“When he wasn’t trying to teach them how to fix tires, raise bees and harvest honey or blow leaves off the roof ,they would sit in his favorite chair and watch Looney Tunes and eat popcorn,” his son said at the service.
Health measures opponent
The family waited until the service to disclose that COVID-19 killed Edwards, though multiple Wyoming media outlets including WyoFile had inquired.
“Our family was not disclosing the illness when he was in the hospital because we didn’t want it to be politicized and we wanted to focus on his recovery,” Mitch Edwards said. Both during his father’s illness and after his death, “we wanted to be able to do what we needed to do as a family,” he said.
When Edwards was hospitalized, a reporter called the lawmaker’s wife, Glenda Edwards, the son said. His father told the family he didn’t want to disclose his illness now but would make it public after he recovered, Mitch Edwards said.
Since the pandemic’s start, both Edwards and his pastor and colleague Clem stridently opposed government measures to quell the virus’s spread. In September, Clem and Edwards were among lawmakers who questioned Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist at a legislative committee meeting. Edwards echoed conservative sentiments that the virus’s impact was overblown for political reasons and would vanish after the November election.
Edwards was aware of the virus’s threat but remained opposed to government measures that closed businesses and kept people apart from each other, his son said.
He did not believe the “virus would disappear,” after the election, his son said, but that the “politicization” of it would. “All these things [were] being used by one side or the other to get an advantage that would go away,” his son said, characterizing how he understood Edwards was thinking at the time.
“He told my mom that he would rather die of COVID than live or die in fear,” Mitch Edwards said at the funeral service. “We are devastated that he died but we are glad that he felt that way,” he said.
In the weeks before the virus sickened him, Edwards traveled to Texas to see a new grandson, and to Laramie for his son’s birthday. The weekend of Oct. 10, a week before his father awoke with a runny nose, many of the Edwards family including Mitch and his wife gathered with Roy Edwards in Gillette.
“He got to give us all hugs and kisses and tell us he loved us,” his son recalled at the funeral service. “Maybe it was one of those hugs or kisses that unknowingly made him sick but it is those hugs, kisses and I-love-yous that are precious to us. Had he lived in fear it is possible that we may not have had those precious moments with him because we do not know what tomorrow holds.”
The lawmaker could have contracted the virus even had he taken every precaution and isolated himself, his son maintained in the phone interview. He could have died of a heart attack or in a car accident, and the family wouldn’t have had that chance to see him, Mitch Edwards said.
The family hopes the lawmaker’s death won’t be politicized because of his COVID-19 views, Mitch Edwards said.
“I would hope everybody would come together and address the issue of the virus being the enemy instead of politicizing it,” he said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.