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Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, started this morning’s COVID-19 panel at the Capitol by signaling limited willingness to entertain changes to the legislative health guidelines currently in place, regardless of yesterday’s announcement that at least one lawmaker has recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We all have important work to get done and we don’t need to spend any time on what’s already been accepted or rejected by members of the Legislature,” said Ellsworth, who is chairing the panel. “Rehashing of items that have already been decided, personal attacks and politicization are not what we’re here to do.”

Panel members then went over a working document outlining COVID-19 mitigation measures that have been discussed — mask use and temperatures checks, for example — as well as guidelines for remote participation and contact tracing within the Capitol.

Legislative minority leaders Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, took issue with face masks being described in the working document as “highly recommended” and temperature checks as “highly encouraged,” and called for stronger, less ambiguous terminology.

“Rehashing of items that have already been decided, personal attacks and politicization are not what we’re here to do.”

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton

The panel’s two Democratic legislators also said clearer guidance needs to be adopted guiding what happens if a lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19, both in terms of how they’re expected to continue participating in the session, and if and how that test result will be shared with colleagues.

Referencing the positive test announced yesterday for Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, and a phone call she received Thursday night informing her of that fact, Cohenour said, “I would never in a million years say we had a plan in place.” She added that people who have been around Bedey should be tested in the next five to seven days in accordance with CDC guidelines.

“We definitely need to get that surveillance testing going right now,” she added. She later referred to the Capitol building as a “petri dish” where illnesses tend to make the rounds throughout the biennial 90-day sessions.

One noteworthy development for people concerned about COVID-19 transmission in Capitol hallways is the addition of a contact tracer whose efforts will be dedicated to the Legislature. Legislative Services Executive Director Susan Fox said a person has already been tapped for the job, and that the hire is expected to be official soon. The contact tracing process will involve coordination with both Lewis and Clark County health officials and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, as legislators are generally expected to travel between Helena and their home districts throughout the session. The panel is expected to add further detail to contact tracing protocols when it meets next week.

Abbott said the names of legislators testing positive for COVID-19 should be made available to the whole legislative body. Ellsworth cited HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws as a potential obstacle, and said public announcement of positive cases is a question for legal counsel to evaluate.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, weighed in, saying, “While I commend Rep. Bedey for the way he handled the situation, I think it’s a very personal decision to be made.” Bedey authorized the announcement of his test result. 

More than 20 members of the public testified — all of them over Zoom, where audio was available but live video was not — asking the Legislature to adopt more stringent COVID-19 guidelines. They called for responses ranging from mandatory mask use and social distancing in the Capitol building to a delayed or fully remote session. All legislators have the option to participate remotely, but many are opting to appear in person.

People offering testimony included a teacher in Shepherd, a Bozeman-based business owner, and a former chair of cardiology at Billings Clinic.

“Sixty percent of people not using social distancing [and] masking will undermine all of the efforts of the people who are,” said Terry Dennis, a Billings-based internal medicine physician. “Prevention clearly works, which seems obvious, but it must be multilayered and widely used.”

There was no testimony from the public advocating a loosening of either general public health measures, or those already in place at the 67th Legislature.

On party lines, the panel passed a motion to approve all items outlined in their working document, with the exception of the contact tracing item.

The panel is slated to meet again Tuesday, Jan. 12.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.