The Missoula City-County Board of Health on Tuesday agreed to test a new state law and follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control to quarantine unvaccinated close contacts as Covid cases rise.
Admitting the decision could prompt a lawsuit, the board agreed that science was key to protecting public health and “doing the right thing” was fundamental to their role as health representatives.
The board plans to reconvene as CDC guidelines change.
“Our biggest responsibility here, as best we can, is to do the right thing,” said board chairman Ross Miller. “If that means we invite a lawsuit because of some poorly crafted legislation that thought this pandemic was going to go away as soon as they (Legislature) adjourned, then so be it.”
The Montana Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 702 into law earlier this year. Among other things, it prohibits discrimination based on a person’s vaccination status and was one of several bills intended to strip local health officials of their authority and ability to handle public health emergencies.
The action approved on Tuesday by the City-County Health Board follows CDC guidance by quarantining unvaccinated close contacts but not vaccinated close contacts. Some believe that could be construed as “discrimination.”
The only other option was to quarantine all close contacts, vaccinated or otherwise, thus avoiding any perceived discrimination based on vaccine status.
“If we did go with (the preferred option), even though it may face potential litigation, certainly we can argue it’s consistent with other sections of (law) and have a very legitimate place to make that recommendation from,” said board member Dan Corti. “Not only is it CDC guidance, but it’s well backed in science and may not be strict enough down the road, but it’s also common sense.”
Moments before the health board convened on Tuesday, Gianforte held a press conference where he reiterated his position against mandates, saying they’ve been “proven” to not work. Prior to his election as the first Republican governor in 16 years – and before the Republican led Legislature convened – local health officials had a suite of options to deal with the pandemic.
Locally, that included a mask mandate for all indoor public places and rules around quarantine. The state also took action by issuing a stay-at-home order, something Gianforte said Tuesday would never happen under his watch.
Asked if the local health board’s actions would stand up to scrutiny, Deputy County Attorney Anna Conley said that was uncertain, but would likely be tested.
“It depends on whether you can assume there’s a balancing test and a reasonable justification for differential treatment despite the absence of that language in the (state) statute,” she said. “If you can assume that, then following CDC guidance would be a legitimate reason to differentiate.”
Despite the legality of the decision, the state is moving in the wrong direction regarding the resurgence of Covid.
On Tuesday, Montana had nearly 3,900 active cases of Covid and nearly 240 active hospitalizations. More than 700 new cases were reported on Tuesday alone, and the number of deaths since the pandemic began has climbed to nearly 1,770.
While Missoula County has the highest percent of vaccinated individuals at 62%, it still has 477 active cases of Covid. However Flathead County, which claims a smaller population, has 690 active cases of Covid and a vaccination rate of just 41%.
The resurgence is stressing local hospitals, including Providence St. Patrick Hospital, which serves as a major regional medical hub. The facility currently has around 25 Covid patients.
“They’re coming from all over western Montana and a few from out of state. We went from two to 15 to 25 in about three to four days. Those are a lot of additional patients to our already very busy hospital,” said hospital CEO Joyce Dombrouski.
She added that St. Pats can no longer take many critical care patients from outside the region and has delayed non-urgent elective surgical procedures.
“We did that because we really needed to take a breath and give our staff any level of reprieve that we could,” she said. “We felt it was the safest situation for our staff and our organization.”