Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — In an internal letter delivered last month, scientific staff at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services criticized the evidence used by health department Director Adam Meier and Gov. Greg Gianforte to justify an August emergency rule discouraging school mask mandates, saying some claims made by the rule were “misleading and false.”

The Sept. 17 letter was sent to Meier via email by Senior Epidemiologist Lisa Richidt and was co-signed by 17 additional staff epidemiologists. Their letter said the rule misrepresented the scientific literature by asserting that masks haven’t been proven effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that prolonged mask wearing can harm children.

The result, the scientists said, is a rule that undermines the health department’s credibility, “contributes to the spread of misinformation,” makes it harder for local public health officials to keep their communities safe and fosters divisiveness as school officials determine whether mask mandates are appropriate for their facilities.

The emergency rule has previously been criticized by the Montana Nurses Association, which said it “promotes junk science” in a Sept. 8 memo. The letter from the epidemiologists, however, is the first public indication that discomfort about the evidence used to justify the rule extends into ranks of the state’s staff scientists.

The letter, which Montana Free Press had sought via an unfulfilled public records request, was provided to MTFP this week by an anonymous source. One of its signatories independently verified that the document in MTFP’s possession is the document they signed. 

Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall declined to comment on the epidemiologists’ letter Tuesday, referring an inquiry to the health department.

Health department spokesman Jon Ebelt referred MTFP to comments Meier made about the emergency rule Sept. 22 at a legislative committee meeting. There, Meier told lawmakers the rule had been developed in response to inquiries from parents received by the health department, the governor’s office and the state office of public instruction.

“It’s not meant to be a conclusionary scientific study,” Meier said at that meeting. “There’s nothing in the rule that would indicate that.”

In response to a question from Rep. Ed Stafmen, D-Bozeman, about whether the rule had been reviewed by doctors or scientists, Meier told lawmakers that the department’s emergency rules are reviewed only by the director and the agency’s legal staff.

“There’s no scientist that signs off on rules and this is, again, not a clinical or scientific study,” he said.

Gianforte, a Republican, and Meier, a Gianforte appointee, announced the emergency rule Aug. 31 as many Montana schools were grappling with how to safely hold in-person classes this fall given the state’s late-summer surge of COVID-19 cases. The rule says schools should prioritize parental concerns when considering mask mandates and provide the opportunity to opt out of health-related mandates for reasons including emotional health and moral conviction.

Gianforte described the measure as an effort to promote parental rights in decisions involving the health of their children.

“Montana parents deserve to know their voices are heard in schools when health-related mandates for their children are being considered,” Gianforte said in a written statement announcing the rule. “They also deserve to know that schools are reviewing reliable data and scientific research about the impacts of mask mandates on students,”

The governor continued: “Unfortunately, mandating masks for students is based on inconclusive research that fails to prove masks’ effectiveness in reducing the incidence of COVID-19 in the classroom. Simply put, our children shouldn’t be subject to arbitrary mask mandates when schools can’t follow the science because there’s a lack of meaningful, reliable research. On the other hand, some scientific studies we’ve carefully reviewed undoubtedly reveal the adverse impacts of masking on a child’s health, wellbeing, and development.”

In a guidance document issued two days later, Sept. 2, the health department acknowledged that the rule “is advisory in nature” and doesn’t override school masking policies. School officials in Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman all published statements saying they believed their masking policies complied with the rule.

In the letter, the health department scientists say they felt obligated to contact Meier to voice “our concern and disagreement” with the way the rule was drafted.

“As epidemiologists, we objectively review scientific literature on a regular basis to inform our programs and policies,” they wrote to Meier. “In an effort to uphold public health data integrity, we need to bring two claims from the Rules to your attention as they are misleading and false.”

Firstly, the rule held that “scientific literature is not conclusive on the extent of the impact of masking on reducing the spread of viral infections.” A prior MTFP review of the sources cited by the rule noted that they include a preprint study that hasn’t yet passed through peer review and a New York magazine opinion article.

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The epidemiologists say the rule’s analysis “ignores numerous peer-reviewed studies that looked at the effect of mask mandates on COVID-19 infections.”

The rule also holds that “there is a body of literature, scientific as well as survey/anecdotal, on the negative health consequences that some individuals, especially some children, experience as a result of prolonged mask wearing.” That claim was sourced to a scientific article that reviewed evidence from 44 studies.

The staff scientists write that only four of those 44 studies were specific to children, and that of those four, three didn’t directly measure health consequences, as opposed to factors such as children’s self-reported comfort after six minutes of masked exercise. The fourth study, they say, concluded that children’s physiological parameters were “well within the acceptable range” after kids wore masks for five minutes.

“As DPHHS employees, it is demoralizing to have the Department issue a Public Health Emergency Rule that is not founded in the science of public health,” the epidemiologists wrote.

Ebelt, the health department spokesman, said Tuesday that Meier has reached out to the agency’s epidemiologists “with an invitation to sit down in person to discuss the emergency rule in more detail, answer questions, and address concerns.”

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.