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Yellowstone County health officer says state vaccine discrimination law creates possible conflict

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Posted at 10:57 PM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-27 10:21:52-04

A law passed by the 2021 Montana Legislature which supporters said would protect people who do not get vaccinated for COVID-19 is causing other challenges for public health officials.

House Bill 702 passed during the last legislative session, makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on vaccination status.

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"CDC tells us that a fully vaccinated person who is exposed so they're not ill, they're in close contact, those people do not need to quarantine," said John Felton, Yellowstone County health officer and RiverStone Health president & CEO. "An unvaccinated person who has a close contact needs to quarantine. So that's what the science tells us, and that could potentially be in conflict with the law."

Felton said Yellowstone County never issued a quarantine order like in some counties in Montana.

"Particularly if you're in a situation where you're issuing quarantine orders, then there's an unsettled question as to whether or not that is abolished," Felton said. "Because also under the administrative rules of Montana, we in public health are obligated to follow the best practices to prevent the spread of disease. So again here's a situation where you've got potentially a conflict between the law and the expectations and requirements of public health."

As written in the legislation, HB 702 is "an act prohibiting discrimination based on a person's vaccination status or possession of an immunity passport..."

"House Bill 702 doesn't allow discrimination in employment services based on vaccinations," Felton said. "Montana has the most restrictive vaccine mandate in the country, because it applies to all public and private businesses. The intent of the law is to say that you can't treat vaccinated and unvaccinated people differently which really gets to the idea of a vaccine mandate."

Felton is concerned about the law applying to all vaccines, including those for hepatitis, measles, mumps and rubella.