BILLINGS — People can be excluded from events, employment, and buildings for not taking the COVID-19 vaccine in some parts of the country.
That can not happen in Montana because House Bill 702 prohibits discrimination against those who have not been vaccinated.
The bill passed by the Montana Legislature this year covers many vaccines and has caused confusion for some county health departments.
"We all try and put our heads together when a bill comes forward and try and think of everything we can of any unintended consequences," said Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings. "And we listen to constituents, lobbyists, everybody on what could be some unintended consequences if this bill makes it through."
"And of course we try and amend bills to make sure that we cover anything that is not legislative intent. But you know we're all human, so there's a lot of bills that come out that have unintended consequences."
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton says it's a potential conflict between the law and the expectations and requirements of public health.
"The law says that we can't treat people differently based on their vaccination status," Felton said. "That's contrary to what CDC says the best science is with respect to quarantine. So the best science with respect to quarantine is people who are fully vaccinated who were close contacts, do not need to quarantine. They need to monitor themselves to see if they develop symptoms but they don't need to go into quarantine."
"People who are unvaccinated in a close contact, CDC says they should quarantine, to make sure they don't become ill. So, if we can't treat people differently based on their vaccination status under House Bill 702, then we create a situation where public health is put in a position of, do we follow the science, and do what CDC says, or do we not," Felton continued.
"CDC guidelines are not law," Usher said. "So, we can't anticipate what CDC guidelines will be at the time of passing a bill or anytime in the future. CDC again does not make law. This bill is not about vaccination. It's not about masks. It's only about discrimination."
Felton said the law causes concern because it applies to more than COVID-19 vaccines.
"Healthcare organizations have required hepatitis and MMR vaccines for years and years, and a number of places require influenza vaccine like we do," Felton said. "But at this point, we can't do any of these."
"Before COVID even came around, this bill was already written because there were people who were being discriminated against." Usher said.
According to the Montana Free Press, Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, was the only Democrat voting for the bill, and Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, do not "recall potential complications regarding quarantine and isolation procedures coming in during the Legislatures discussion of HB 702 and the issue wasn't raised during committee hearings."
Jacobson told the Free Press he's not sure whether he would have voted differently given the knowledge of the bill's current impact on schools, counties, and businesses.
"I tried to do what I felt was the right thing for the people in my district," Jacobson said. "I think the hope was we would be on the back end of this by now."
Custer also voted yes. "I probably would have voted no," Custer said. "The people could have been mad at me, but then it would have been done."
"It's one of the biggest bills we passed this session," Usher said. "It's really about freedom of choice, and liberty rights."
Felton also says that healthcare organizations can't require staff to be vaccinated, often making it difficult to assure patients.
However, Usher did say that the law does not prohibit patients from asking that question.