Montana’s new law sows confusion and distrust of school quarantines

The law states that businesses and government entities cannot treat people differently based on their immunization status.

This article was published on Thursday, August 26, 2021 in Kaiser Santé news.

Through Aaron Bolton

As classes begin this week and next week, school and county health officials in Montana wonder how a new state law prohibiting vaccine discrimination should apply to quarantine orders for students and staff members exposed to COVID-19.

This is the latest consequence of the law that says businesses and government entities cannot treat people differently based on vaccination status. The law makes Montana the only state which prohibits both public and private employers – including hospitals – to require workers to be vaccinated against COVID.

Some state and county officials also interpret the law to mean that unvaccinated people cannot be quarantined for exposure to COVID unless those vaccinated are also. This interpretation runs counter to the Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that only unvaccinated people are quarantined in the event of exposure to COVID.

State law worries school officials who had planned to rely on CDC guidelines to minimize closures and disruption this fall after the fluctuating in-person, distance and hybrid classes. last school year.

Micah Hill, superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, said he received advice from the office of Republican Governor Greg Gianforte who confirmed that the law means quarantine protocols must be the same for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Hill described this interpretation as a “game changer” for schools, as the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus crosses the state. Kalispell County Flathead has the highest number of active COVID cases with only 41% of the eligible population fully vaccinated. Only 1 in 4 children eligible for a COVID vaccine are vaccinated, according to county health officials. Hill estimates that about two-thirds of its staff are vaccinated.

“If everyone is quarantined with a more contagious variant, you could see a lot of people outside of the school, staff and students, and [that] really threatens the ability of schools to stay open, ”Hill said.

Due to the law, some Montana County health and school officials have decided to drop the quarantine orders. Instead, they make quarantine an option for exposed students.

But at least one county has decided to defy the law. The Missoula City and County Board of Health voted unanimously this week for a policy requiring that the unvaccinated be quarantined, but not the vaccinated. The board held the vote after being told by a representative from the county attorney’s office that the policy could lead to a trial.

The position of health officials in Missoula is the latest in a series of defiant acts by schools and local governments against state laws and policies that prohibit COVID prevention measures. In Florida, for example, a handful of counties said they would force students to wear masks despite Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.

In Texas, some school districts challenged a similar executive order by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, while a county sued the governor to rescind the order.

Anna Conley, assistant attorney general for Missoula County, said that while she cannot promise the county will succeed in court, the county may have a good argument to overturn the state law if it was to be the subject of litigation. The law can conflict with other state health laws that require health boards and health workers to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, she said.

Montana lawmakers passed House Bill 702 this spring amid a backlash against COVID prevention protocols, such as a mask mandate under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, and after a hospital in Great Falls has announced its intention to require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

“Your healthcare decisions are private; they’re protected by the Montana state constitution,” Bill-sponsoring state representative Jennifer Carlson (R-Manhattan) said in the session. legislative. “Your privacy is protected and your religious rights are protected.”

Brooke Stroyke, spokesperson for Gianforte, said it was up to county officials to interpret how HB 702 affects quarantine orders in schools. However, an adviser from the governor’s office has told districts that the law presents an all-or-nothing option for county health departments when it comes to quarantine orders.

“HB 702 would allow quarantine protocols as long as they are applied to everyone equally and are not based on COVID vaccination status,” Gianforte, education and workforce policy adviser Dylan klapmeier written in an email.

Lance Melton, CEO of the Montana School Boards Association, said the interpretation erases the benefit vaccines could offer in schools, where vaccinated teachers and students 12 and older would not have to self-quarantine following at an exhibition under the direction of the CDC.

Aside from Missoula, many county health departments are still deciding what to do. Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties have both said they will drop quarantine orders, making it optional for people to follow CDC guidelines.

Flathead County leans towards the same approach. Flathead County health official Joe Russell said it would allow vaccinated students, teachers and county residents to return to school and work as long as they don’t show symptoms of COVID. Russell said the county can still order people with HIV to self-isolate.

“I don’t think it’s fair to punish someone who is fully immunized and tell them to… stay home for eight to 10 days. Is that fair?” Russell said.

This means relying on unvaccinated people to do the right thing and stay home after being identified as close contact.

The prospect terrifies Rebecca Miller, who has two children in the Bigfork School District in Flathead County, where masks will not be mandatory in schools. Miller doesn’t think parents who desperately want to keep their kids in school so they can continue working will follow the advice of the Flathead City-County Health Department.

“Yeah, I think they’re going to send them to school,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Montana Public Radio, NPR and KHN.

Kaiser Santé news is a national health policy information service that is part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan organization.

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