With Hands Tied, Montana Officials Issue Public Health Plea

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Health officials in both Missoula and Bozeman are begging Montana residents to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as hospitals face increasing strain and the state remains without any statewide health mandates.

Officials in Bozeman and Missoula lamented their inability to implement public health restrictions to limit the spread of the virus after the state Legislature passed several laws earlier this year curtailing the power of local health officers to implement rules such as mask requirements and limiting gathering sizes.

“Now is the time when we would have mandates in place,” said D’Shane Barnett, Missoula County health officer. “Unfortunately, we have anti-health state legislators who went out of their way to make that not possible.”

Lori Christensen, public health officer for Gallatin County, said the legislative changes have “complicated the scene” in terms of immediate action she can take. She said she trying to navigate “the complexity of the law,” but a mask mandate is not on the horizon.

Laws passed earlier this year include one allowing county commissioners to override rules by local health officials, essentially taking away their power to take quick action addressing the pandemic. Another law states that if jurisdictions add public health rules stronger than state public health measures, they could lose 20% of some grants. There are no current statewide COVID-19 measures in place.

Missoula Mayor John Engen said some local jurisdictions are considering legal action against the state to try to regain local control over public health requirements.

“Until the Legislature meets again or a court takes action, we are constrained by the law of the land,” Engen said.

Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has remained firm in his opposition to a statewide mask mandate.

The governor announced on Friday an emergency rule waiving regulations to make it easier for hospitals to transfer certain patients to other health care facilities. The rule could help free up hospital beds.

“We will continue to work with hospitals and providers to support their ongoing response," Gianforte said in a statement.

In Missoula, officials said Friday they requested 24 National Guard soldiers to assist the county in addressing its COVID-19 surge next week. The guardsmen were requested for both health care facilities and to assist in The Sleepy Inn, a facility used to quarantine unhoused people who are diagnosed with the virus or identified as close contacts.

Bozeman Health has also put in a request for National Guard assistance.

Those requests come after Gianforte said earlier this week that 17 National Guard soldiers will help address the pandemic in the state, with 10 helping at Billings Clinic and seven helping at the state lab and warehouse in Helena. Two other hospitals — St. Peter's in Helena and St. James in Butte — also requested National Guard assistance this week.

In Bozeman, the Deaconess Hospital is preparing a new ward to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients in a former newborn nursery that has been out of use for a year. The ward will be ready next week.

The unit “is not ideal,” said Kathryn Bertany, president of Deaconess Hospital. But is needed as critical care beds are close to full nearly every day.

Montana health officials reported just over 1,200 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, as the daily reported case numbers creep closer to the peak of the previous surge seen in November. The state reported 361 people hospitalized with the virus on Thursday.

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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.