Legislature to hire part-time contact tracer from county

COVID-19 panel voted on a series of draft recommendations Friday

By: - January 8, 2021 4:02 pm

The legislative leadership COVID-19 panel meets Friday, Jan. 8. (MPAN)

The Lewis and Clark County Board of Commissioners will decide next week whether to approve a contract for a county contact tracer to work for the state Legislative Services Division part-time, a move that some within the Legislature fear could be too late now that one lawmaker has already announced a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

The contract, on which the commissioners will vote Tuesday, would provide for the part-time employment of a county contact tracer to follow all positive COVID-19 cases at the Legislature. The agreement is not to exceed $7,000 and would last through April.

Legislative leaders have discussed implementing contact tracing protocols, but had not publicly discussed the details until Legislative Services Director Susan Byorth Fox informed lawmakers of the county vote during the first meeting of the legislative leadership COVID-19 response panel on Friday.

The temporary employee “will take all cases diagnosed through the legislature and will interview and do contact tracing,” said Damian Boudreau, a spokesman for the Lewis and Clark County Public Health Department.

Thursday evening, the COVID-19 panel’s chair, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced the Legislature’s first positive case. Rep. David Bedey, also a Republican from Hamilton, contracted the virus before the beginning of the session, a spokesman for legislative leadership said last night. He is asymptomatic and in quarantine.

Bedey’s diagnosis informed much of the debate in Friday’s inaugural meeting of the COVID-19 panel, made up of House and Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, plus Ellsworth.

Lawmakers allowed for remote testimony and voting this session, the first time they’ve done so, but did not enact any additional protective measures, such as mandatory masks or social distancing, following bitter debates over rules before the session began.

“Democrats voted against these rules,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said. “We have wanted to see a clear plan. I’m hoping we come up with it today.”

Ellsworth and other Republicans have countered that the ability to testify remotely allows everyone to be as safe as they’re comfortable with — though the majority of lawmakers who have appeared in person haven’t donned masks, and most committee rooms are too small to ensure 6-feet of distance between participants.

“I am in favor of you following the public health guidelines that are in place statewide — there is a statewide mask mandate that has not been rescinded,” Dr. James Vincent, a Billings cardiologist, told the panel Friday. “There should be a mask order, there should be separation of people. You are insulting the entire healthcare system in the state when you do not follow guidelines.”

Vincent was one of more than a dozen members of the public, advocates and medical professionals who offered input, all of whom admonished the Legislature for not adopting measures like a mask mandate.

The lawmakers on the panel did not adopt a formal plan for the whole Legislature Friday, but they did pass several provisions in a draft document of COVID-19 precautions that “highly encourage” and “highly recommend” temperature checks, masks, social distancing and so on. Abbott and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour both voted against the motion.

The document — which Ellsworth repeatedly emphasized was subject to change — also explains where lawmakers can get tested, that they should participate remotely while awaiting results and that they should notify leadership immediately upon receiving a positive result.

The panel will meet again next Tuesday, at which point Abbott and Cohenour will introduce amendments to the working plan.

Ellsworth DRAFT Covid Panel Rules

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.