County Health Officer Discouraged After Governor Announces Plan to Repeal Mask Mandate on Friday

Joe Russell calls Gov. Greg Gianforte’s decision a ‘gut punch,’ says he will consult with board of health before recommending any local action

By Andy Viano
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte speaks at the Flathead County Lincoln Reagan Brunch at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on April 15, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead City-County Health Officer called Gov. Greg Gianforte’s announcement that he will be lifting the statewide mask mandate later this week a “gut punch” and said the county had not vaccinated nearly enough people for him to recommend such a move.

Gianforte made the pre-announcement on Wednesday as he signed into law a bill offering protections for businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits. According to the Associated Press, Gianforte said that enough of Montana’s population had been vaccinated in order for him to safely lift the mask mandate, which has been in place since mid-July, on Friday.

But Joe Russell, the highest-ranking public health official in Flathead County, said the county was miles from reaching that point. As of Wednesday, just 2,710 Flathead County residents (less than 3% of the population) were fully vaccinated. Russell said he wouldn’t consider going unmasked until at least 60% of the population was fully immunized and “clearly we’re not anywhere near that.”

“It’s a gut punch,” Russell said of the mask mandate’s repeal. “I don’t know what we’re doing yet. We’ve got to regroup.”

Russell also noted that Gianforte’s announcement comes on the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of an experiment that determined wearing two masks — a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask — was twice as effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 as wearing just one mask. The CDC continues to recommend that Americans wear a mask made of tightly woven, breathable fabric when “indoors or outdoors with people who don’t live with you” and now says that two masks offer a “better fit and extra protection.”

“I hope (people) understand that at the same day Montana’s taking the mask mandate off, the CDC is recommending double masking,” Russell said. “(The state)’s going fast one way and the CDC is going fast the other way.”

Some counties and municipalities throughout Montana had preemptively enacted their own mask mandates earlier this year in anticipation of Gianforte rolling back the directive. In early January, the governor said he “fully intend(ed)” to lift the mask ordinance once the now-signed liability law was in place and the vaccine was more widely available.

Whitefish was one of those municipalities to implement such a local mask mandate and its requirement will remain in place for the time being. When the Whitefish City Council put its ordinance in place on Jan. 4, City Manager Dana Smith said the decision was made “due to the overwhelming consensus of current medical and scientific evidence.” Whitefish’s ordinance will go into place as soon as the state’s is lifted and last for 90 days if it is not repealed earlier by the city council.

Russell said he planned to confer with the Flathead City-County Board of Health before suggesting any local health measures. So far, any attempt to impose local restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been rejected by the board, although the nine-member panel did add a new member earlier this year. A move to enact capacity restrictions at certain large events deadlocked in a 4-4 vote in November.

The board of health’s next scheduled meeting is Feb. 18.

Until that time, Russell and the health department will continue focusing on their ongoing vaccination clinics at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. The county announced on Tuesday that it was allocated an additional 1,000 vaccine doses from the state and would distribute those at a newly added clinic this Friday. The county is regularly holding clinics Tuesday through Thursday, with all immunizations by appointment only.

Masks are currently required at all vaccine clinics in Flathead County and Russell said he was “probably” going to keep that policy in place even after the statewide directive is lifted.

More than 11,000 Flathead County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last year and 74 people have died. The pace of new infections has slowed considerably across the state from its peak late last fall but Flathead County is still averaging more than 45 new confirmed cases per day since Jan. 1.

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