HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana law is limiting health departments’ ability to issue quarantine orders as it sees a wave of COVID-19 cases threatening the state’s health care system.
The law passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte last spring bans discrimination based on people's vaccination record, putting vaccine status alongside sex and race as a protected class in the state’s human rights law.
Local health departments in some of the most populous countries decided last week they would no longer issue quarantine orders for people who come in close contact with known positive cases of the coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control recommended that vaccinated people not be required to quarantine. Facing the choice of either quarantining all close contacts or none, health officials in Lewis and Clark, Butte Silver Bow, Cascade and Gallatin counties decided they would no longer issue quarantine orders for anyone, regardless of whether they have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
Just over 50% of eligible Montana residents have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
But in Missoula, health officials decided Tuesday to keep following CDC guidance at the risk of violating state law.
“It seems extreme to me that state law would prohibit us from following CDC guidance,” said Anna Conley, a deputy county attorney with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
Spokespeople for the state Department of Justice and the governor's office said it was up to county attorneys to interpret state law.
The Missoula board of health voted unanimously to keep issuing quarantine orders for unvaccinated close contacts after a public hearing in which Dr. James Quirk, chief medical officer at Partnership Health Center, urged the board to follow CDC recommendations rather than state law, which he said violated the board's obligations.
“There’s the law, and then there’s a moral obligation,” Quirk said.
Health experts said that ignoring CDC guidelines could have particularly devastating effects in schools, where infected teachers, students and staff could come in close contact with unvaccinated students, and in health care settings, where staffing difficulties are already weighing heavily on medical facilities.
In Butte Silver-Bow, the county has transitioned from issuing quarantine orders to “strongly recommending” quarantine for unvaccinated people, a request that is not binding. A violation of the request carries no penalty.
Karen Sullivan, the health officer for the Butte-Silver Bow County Health Department, said efforts by public health officials to keep the public safe are hampered by the inability to issue quarantine requirements.
The Montana School Board Association is also recommending that schools not comply with quarantine requirements if they apply only to unvaccinated people, according to an email from the association’s Executive Director Lance Melton obtained by The Associated Press.
“We want to make sure our members avoid liability that they could incur by helping enforce discriminatory enforcement by county health departments,” Melton wrote.
Instead, Melton said that when students and teachers are exposed to a positive coronavirus case, they should be sent home regardless of their vaccination status.
Many Montana schools are not yet in session, but in states where the school year has already begun, virus outbreaks have forced closures and quarantines applying to hundreds of students.
Some Montana school districts have voted to require masks when school begins, but there is no statewide mandate. Gianforte reiterated Tuesday that he would not issue any vaccination or mask mandates in the state.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.