Health board officials spar over mask effectiveness, local enforcement

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Last week’s Beaverhead County-City board of health meeting was more educational than procedural, with community members and officials discussing local coronavirus spread and ways to mitigate it.

The nearly four-hour gathering provided a few fireworks, with some officials pointing fingers at lax enforcement of state mask requirements as contributing to escalating COVID case counts.

Public Health board member and Dillon Mayor Mike Klakken kicked off the Nov. 23 meeting calling it illegal for barring the public from attending in person. He made similar arguments at prior city council meetings that were held through video conferencing software during the pandemic.

Klakken also questioned the validity of data presented by fellow board member and veterinary pathologist Dr. Charlotte Quist over the effectiveness of mask usage and social distancing in reducing transmission of the virus.

Quist referenced recentlypublished studies regarding mask usage and COVID-19, holding an inch-thick stack of them in her hands as she explained the findings. Quist said the studies indicate that masks will not 100 percent stop a person from getting COVID-19, but can reduce how many virus particles a person inhales. Particles are spread through water droplets, which are emitted when a person breathes, sneezes, sings or talks. Fewer particles can mean the difference between a person getting COVID and its severity, Quist noted. Masks worn by both parties in a conversation reduce the number of particles even more.

“I think this is ample data that shows wearing masks has a great deal of benefit for communities,” Quist said.

Quist refuted claims that the seasonal flu is more dangerous than COVID-19. Quist noted the nationwide COVID-19 death toll exceeds 250,000 so far this year, but the flu kills between 3,000 and 80,000 people each year. In Montana, there were 614 COVID deaths as of Nov. 23; last year’s flu season killed 17 people, she said.

County Health Officer Dr. Megan Evans said more evidence emerges daily that many recovered COVID-19 individuals deal with long-term health issues stemming from the infection, such as lung damage. That damage causes difficulty breathing and fatigue, preventing the person from resuming their regular activities.

Klakken disagreed with Quist’s report, adding he did not believe the researchers did the math correctly in their findings. He also raised doubt over whether keeping six-feet apart helps.

Others questioned officials over their leadership and mask enforcement.

Dillon City Council member Mary Jo O’Rourke sought “stronger leadership” from local officials to serve as an example to community members about the importance of mask usage.

“We’re all in this together. We need to change the tenor of this discussion to one of cooperation and support, collaboration, rather than confrontation,” she said. “We need our leaders to step up and be leaders.”

Dillon Police Chief Don Guiberson and Beaverhead County Sheriff Paul Craft pushed back on the allegation that local officials were not doing enough to combat virus spread.

“It’s kind of a bit of a slap in the face to say we’re not doing these things, when we have been very involved in trying to get this handled,” Guiberson said. “When you start throwing things out that other people should be doing this when you don’t know what we’re doing, it tends to put a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

Guiberson said his staff have adjusted schedules and take additional precautions to be able to continue to serve the community.

Craft agreed: “We’ve been working our tails off, trying to get people to wear masks. I just believe it’s a little bit of a slap in the face that a council member says we’re not really doing anything, when I don’t believe that’s the truth....It’s not that big of a deal for someone in our community to wash their hands, wear masks and practice social distancing. If we could get everybody to follow that for two weeks – give us two weeks, 14 days – we could see the bottom drop out of our numbers. I’m totally convinced of that.”

Resident Stephanie Osburn asked police how they are enforcing the governor’s mask mandate locally. Guiberson and Craft said they prefer education over ticketing.

“We’ve been reviewing the laws, and we feel that our best course – our only course – of action is to educate the public,” Craft said.

But if a business owner asks a person to leave for not following mask orders and they refuse to do so, police can cite the person for trespassing, Craft added. If there is an altercation between two individuals over mask wearing, police can ticket for disorderly conduct or assault, depending on the severity of the incident.

“If you start throwing people in jail, or ticketing them, if they don’t wear masks, that’s when I really have a problem,” Klakken declared.

Residents asked for clarification on the difference between isolation and quarantine. Public Health Director Sue Hansen said the easiest way to remember the difference is isolation is for people who are ill. Quarantine is for those who were around someone who had COVID-19.

Whether a person is a close contact, and how long they are in quaratine has shifted as more information became known about how the virus spreads, she added. Quarantine is now required for people who have been in contact with a positive case for 15 minutes cumulatively over a 24-hour period.

Dillon City Attorney Jim Dolan encouraged public health to have contact tracers call from local phone numbers. He said he was in quarantine for being a close contact, but did not realize he was a close contact until days later because he ignored calls from out-of-state area codes. Public health officials in the past said contact tracers often are using their personal cell phones to get in touch with COVID-positive contacts.

Community members suggested starting a public health campaign to make people more aware of what they can do to help reduce the spread of the virus locally.

In other action, the board unanimously approved Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask directives at its meeting.