HELENA — In an internal letter delivered last month, scientific staff at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services criticized the evidence used by health department Director Adam Meier and Gov. Greg Gianforte to justify an August emergency rule discouraging school mask mandates, saying some claims made by the rule were “misleading and false.”
The Sept. 17 letter was sent to Meier via email by Senior Epidemiologist Lisa Richidt and was co-signed by 17 additional staff epidemiologists. Their letter said the rule misrepresented the scientific literature by asserting that masks haven’t been proven effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that prolonged mask wearing can harm children.
The result, the scientists said, is a rule that undermines the health department’s credibility, “contributes to the spread of misinformation,” makes it harder for local public health officials to keep their communities safe and fosters divisiveness as school officials determine whether mask mandates are appropriate for their facilities.
The emergency rule has previously been criticized by the Montana Nurses Association, which said it “promotes junk science” in a Sept. 8 memo. The letter from the epidemiologists, however, is the first public indication that discomfort about the evidence used to justify the rule extends into ranks of the state’s staff scientists.
The letter, which Montana Free Press had sought via an unfulfilled public records request, was provided to MTFP this week by an anonymous source. One of its signatories independently verified that the document in MTFP’s possession is the document they signed.
Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall declined to comment on the epidemiologists’ letter Tuesday, referring an inquiry to the health department.
On Wednesday, the Montana Nurses Association responded to the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ emergency rule on school mask mandates. The association’s memo said the rule violates state law and “promotes junk science.”
The rule also holds that “there is a body of literature, scientific as well as survey/anecdotal, on the negative health consequences that some individuals, especially some children, experience as a result of prolonged mask wearing.” That claim was sourced to a scientific article that reviewed evidence from 44 studies.
The staff scientists write that only four of those 44 studies were specific to children, and that of those four, three didn’t directly measure health consequences, as opposed to factors such as children’s self-reported comfort after six minutes of masked exercise. The fourth study, they say, concluded that children’s physiological parameters were “well within the acceptable range” after kids wore masks for five minutes.
“As DPHHS employees, it is demoralizing to have the Department issue a Public Health Emergency Rule that is not founded in the science of public health,” the epidemiologists wrote.
Ebelt, the health department spokesman, said Tuesday that Meier has reached out to the agency’s epidemiologists “with an invitation to sit down in person to discuss the emergency rule in more detail, answer questions, and address concerns.”