Health Board revises COVID-19 mitigation requirements

MISSOULA COUNTY - The Missoula City-County Board of Health voted 6 to 1 to make several revisions to the County’s current COVID-19 mitigation requirements during a virtual meeting Thursday, Feb. 18.

These revisions include:

1. Increasing event capacities from 25 to 50 for indoors and 100 for outdoors.

2. Removing capacity limits except as necessary to meet distancing requirements.

3. Removing certain restrictions on businesses including, but not limited to: fitness facilities, pools, places of worship and assembly, personal care businesses, restaurants and bars. Customers will be allowed to order at the bar as long as areas are designated. They can also play pool and darts as long as social distancing can be maintained.

4. Revising language throughout the rule based on input from community entities for clarity.

Board member Pam Boyd voted against the revisions because she had concerns regarding increased capacities in gyms, the ability to socially distance at bars and determining capacities for business that are constantly opening in the area.

Based on current epidemiological data Missoula City-County Health Department will not recommend relaxing the County’s mask mandate. According to Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy, since their meeting in January even stronger evidence about the efficiency of masks in preventing COVID-19 spread has come out.

According to a January report from the Centers for Disease Control, 59% of transmissions come from a non-symptomatic state. Meaning that the transmitter is either among the quarter of people that never get symptoms or are unaware that they are infected at the time.

Another piece of evidence she cited came from the Journal of the American Medical Association also in January. Over the summer in Kansas, counties could opt in or out of the state’s mask mandate. What this resulted in was that counties that stuck with the mandate reduced their transmission rates by four percent while those that chose not to have the mandate, increased their transmission rates by 100% in three months. 

In October, the Board set a goal for the County that if the daily incidence rate went below 25 for two consecutive weeks, then the Department would consider relaxing certain restrictions. This is based on the seven-day average in daily new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. 

Leahy presented the County’s epidemiological profile. She said this is the first time the County’s overall trajectory has transitioned into the green category which is the optimal one out of yellow and red. The County has had an incidence rate of 25 for 16 days.

The positive test rate has stayed below the goal of 10%. This is an indicator of the level of disease in the community, as well as an indicator if enough testing is being offered. Leahy wanted to remind residents that tests are still available for free seven days a week in Missoula. Free tests are also available in Seeley Lake on Tuesday afternoon in the parking lot of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation. People can get one even if they are only experiencing minor symptoms.

Compared to the state average, Missoula County is 27% lower than the state average in COVID-19 cases based on results from Tuesday, Feb. 16. The goal is to stay at least 25% lower than the state average.

MCCHD Public Information Officer Hayley Devlin made a presentation analyzing the 122 public comments the Department received in response to the proposed revisions. Comments were accepted at between Feb. 11 and Feb. 16.

Around 66% of the comments came from within city limits, 18% were outside the limits and 16% did not specify. For the proposed changes Devlin said 43% of responses did not take a clear stance on the revisions. Of the decipherable comments, 59% preferred to keep the restrictions, 38% supported the reductions while three percent advocated for more restrictions.

Those who did not want the revisions indicated they wanted the community to get more vaccines first while others showed concerns about variants coming in.

When asked about the mask mandate responses were more split with 51% in favor and 49% opposed.

There is currently no benchmark figure in place for when MCCHD can remove the mask mandate, but the rescinding process will begin once the department determines that herd immunity has been established in the area. The Board revisits the restrictions every month.

“The point today is that the work that all of Missoula has done has paid off in a very measurable way and in the same breath, we have to keep practicing certain non-contagion or mitigation efforts to hold that,” Leahy said.


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