Missoula heads into legal gray with vote to continue quarantine order for close contacts

Board made the unanimous decision Tuesday as it met to discuss possible legal concerns

By: - August 24, 2021 7:57 pm

Coronavirus COVID-19 computer generated image.

The Missoula City-County Health Board voted on Tuesday to continue following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when ordering people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to isolate and close contacts to quarantine, despite concerns of a lawsuit over the protocol being at odds with newly passed legislation barring discrimination based on vaccination status.

“Our biggest responsibility here is to, as best we can … try to do the right thing,” said board chairman Ross Miller. “And if that means that we invite a lawsuit because of some poorly crafted legislation that thought this pandemic was gonna go away as soon as they adjourned, so be it.”

The board held a special meeting on Tuesday to address legal concerns that its policy, which has different quarantining rules for unvaccinated and vaccinated people, may conflict with House Bill 702. During the meeting, the board discussed multiple options including quarantining everyone regardless of vaccination status, not quarantining anyone, continuing to follow CDC guidelines, and only requiring children less than 12-years-old to quarantine.

Passed during the recent legislative session, HB702 says an most employers and organizations cannot treat unvaccinated and vaccinated people differently and is part of a handful of recently enacted legislation that limits the ability of local health boards to enforce public health mandates.  As the delta variant drives up hospitalizations and cases, health boards across the state have struggled to navigate the restrictive laws.

With new laws restricting public health, officials try to navigate rising COVID cases

 

CDC guidance calls for unvaccinated people and symptomatic vaccinated people to quarantine for 14 days if they have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case. CDC guidelines recommend anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 — vaccinated or not — isolate for 10 days.

Before the board met, Gov. Greg Gianforte held a press conference where he discussed the rise in COVID-19 cases. While he encouraged vaccinations, he maintained that he would not issue any mask or vaccine mandates.

With limited power to establish their own public health measures, some local health boards have turned their efforts to making sure people isolate and quarantine, one of the seemingly last legal areas where they believe they can implement mandates. In navigating the new laws, some counties have opted to mandate isolation for confirmed cases, which does not vary based on vaccination status, but only recommend close contacts quarantine. Generally, counties are taking different approaches based on differing interpretations of recent legislation.

Board member Dan Corti, spoke in favor of continuing with the current policy and said while it might be in conflict with HB702, it is consistent with other sections of law.

“If we did go with [CDC guidelines], even though it may face potential litigation, certainly we can argue it’s consistent with other sections … and have a very legitimate place to make that recommendation from,” he said, referring to a section of the Montana Code Annotated says it’s local health boards’ power and duty to use isolation and quarantine measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. “Not only is it CDC guidance, but it’s well backed in science … it’s also common sense,” he said.

Anna Conley, a senior civil deputy in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, said she was uncertain if the policy would withstand a legal challenge, but said she was fine with the board going forward in following CDC guidelines.

“It’s very hard for me to conceive of … a protected class that’s not subject to reasonable grounds to differentiate. I think it’s an important question that somebody needs to answer whether it’s the human rights bureau or a district court,” she said. “Because it seems extreme to me that state law would prohibit us from following CDC guidance.”

Dr. James Quirk, the chief medical officer at Partnership Health Center, spoke in favor of the CDC guidance calls for unvaccinated people and symptomatic vaccinated people to quarantine for 14 days if they have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case. CDC guidelines recommend anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 — vaccinated or not — isolate for 10 days.

“It’s not arbitrary, whether people are vaccinated or unvaccinated. It is incredibly relevant and in regards to the spread of disease process,” he said.

Cindy Farr, Missoula City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 commander, said she was pleased with the decision:  “Following CDC recommendations is what we do in public health,  and it makes me feel very confident as we continue to manage this pandemic.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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