A trained contact tracer has signed a contract to work the 2021 Montana legislative session to investigate COVID-19 cases in the state Capitol.
Two lawmakers have already tested positive for the novel coronavirus within the first six days of the session, although neither were said to have contracted the virus there, and Gov. Greg Gianforte had self-quarantined after a close contact since his swearing in ceremony on on Jan. 4.
Gianforte returned to the Capitol on Wednesday after multiple tests returned negative results.
One of the lawmakers, Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, had been participating remotely since the start of the session and Rep. David Bedley, R-Hamilton, participated in the session's early days while wearing a mask and has worked remotely since his positive test.
Legislative Services Executive Director Susan Fox announced the hire at Thursday's Legislative COVID-19 Response Panel, a group made up of leadership from the House and Senate. Fox told the Montana State News Bureau in an email after the panel meeting the contact tracer had begun work at the Capitol. Fox said Thursday the contact tracer is a former Lewis and Clark County employee and will make $19.98 an hour on the job.
The contact tracer, which is contracted through Lewis and Clark Public Health, will be tasked with notifying contacts of probable or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in an effort to track and limit the spread of the virus.
Fox also told the panel testing for lawmakers and legislative staff has been set up at CareHere, the state employee health center near St. Peter's Health in Helena. Rapid tests are available, which can take as little as 15 minutes to return a result although results are generally less accurate, as well as a PCR test, which has better accuracy but takes a few days to return with a result. Surveillance testing, also called asymptomatic testing, may be in the works, Fox said.
The panel discussion, through two hours before public comment, sought to define language in a document outlining the legislature's COVID-19 responses. The panel added language Thursday clarifying that lawmakers who have tested positive for COVID-19 have permission to vote remotely.
One hitch in the meeting came on the question of paid sick leave for legislative staff, some of whom have been working remotely for the first two weeks of the session so the Legislative Services Division can get a sample of the setting in which the staff will work. Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from East Helena, motioned to amend the COVID response document to include paid sick leave for staff, but the motion died as lawmakers determined no funding had been arranged for such a use in either the Legislative Services Division budget or the Feed Bill, which funds operations during the session itself. Fox told the panel legislative staff has, in the past, not had paid sick leave.
Cohenour and panel chair Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, both agreed finding funding would be paramount to the legislature's structural integrity.
"It could cripple us in operation," Ellsworth said, adding it would be "irresponsible" to let legislative staff go without paid sick leave provisions during the pandemic.
Cohenour agreed to withdraw her motion but said lawmakers should find the funding before the panel's next meeting.
Legislative staff had expected to begin working in-person at the session for the first time on Monday. Fox said Thursday morning the decision by staff to arrive for in-person was still under discussion that morning.