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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Why Counties Following Montana Law Can’t Follow CDC Quarantine Guidance 

School hallway showing students walking through in a blur.

County health officials across Montana are grappling with a new state law that says they can’t treat vaccinated and unvaccinated people differently. Health officials and school districts working to keep students in the classroom could face a difficult choice: Follow Montana law, or follow recommendations from federal health agencies.

The debate boils down to how health officials respond when someone who has been exposed to COVID is vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Montana legislators this spring passed House Bill 702, which says businesses, employers and governmental entities can’t treat people differently based on their vaccination status. That means if an unvaccinated person is told to quarantine because they’re a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case, a vaccinated person must be told to do the same.

That goes against recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which say after a close contact vaccinated people don’t need to be quarantined but should be tested and wear a mask for two weeks.

Lance Melton is with the Montana School Board Association.

“It’s just something that we started to hear about, but the volume of the calls related to this issue suggest that it’s somewhat of a statewide issue right now.”

Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill had hoped that Flathead County would follow the CDC guidance this fall, keeping more students and staff in the classroom compared to last year. He says HB-702 threatens that possibility.

“The potential if everybody is getting quarantined with a more contagious variant, you could see a lot of people out of school — staff and students — and really threatens the ability to keep our schools open.”

But having different rules in place for unvaccinated and vaccinated students and staff could violate state law.

This week, the Missoula City-County Board of Health unanimously voted to follow the CDC’s guidance anyway, even after a county attorney said it could lead to a court fight.

A spokesperson with Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office told MTPR it’s up to county officials to interpret how HB-702 impacts quarantine orders in schools and beyond.

Superintendents and the Montana School Board Association told MTPR that advisors in the governor’s office have instructed districts that the law presents an all-or-none option when it comes to quarantine orders.

MTPR obtained email from the governor’s office to one district confirming that the governor’s office has advised that vaccinated and unvaccinated students can’t be treated differently.

Jennifer Carlson, a Republican representative from Manhattan, sponsored House Bill 702 and first introduced it to lawmakers in March.

“Your health care decisions are private, they’re protected by the Constitution of the state of Montana. Your privacy is protected and your religious rights are protected.”

Some counties are attempting to chart a course somewhere between Montana’s law and the CDC’s guidance. Gallatin and Lewis & Clark counties both say they will drop quarantine orders, giving people an option to follow CDC guidance.

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell says he’s leaning toward the same approach because it will allow vaccinated students, teachers and county residents to return to school and work if they aren’t showing symptoms. Russell says the county can still order COVID-positive people to isolate.

“Because I don't think it's fair to punish someone that’s fully vaccinated and tell them that they have to stay home for eight to 10 days. How fair is that?”

He says that approach means the county is relying on unvaccinated people to do the right thing and stay home after they’ve been identified as a close contact.

That terrifies Rebecca Miller who has two children in the Bigfork School District, where masking won’t be required. She doesn’t think every parent will follow the Flathead City-County Health Department’s advice if their kids are close contacts.

“Yea, I think they’re going to send them to school,” she says.

Other counties have not decided where they will land on how HB-702 will impact their COVID-19 quarantine practices. Many K-12 schools across the state start classes over the next week.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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