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Montana’s new COVID-19 crisis: How is Gov. Gianforte responding?

Urges vaccines -- but efforts questioned
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Posted at 10:22 AM, Oct 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-15 12:35:36-04

HELENA — Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on how Gov. Greg Gianforte and his administration are responding to the surge in Covid-19 cases in Montana.

As Montana grapples with another deadly surge of COVID-19, with hospitalizations and caseloads among the highest per-capita in the nation, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration says it’s responding by doing all it can to support struggling hospitals and medical facilities.

“We’re working very diligently with hospitals, and with other practitioners, to help solve both the short-term needs, but also to improve the pipeline for the health-care workforce,” says the state’s top health official, Adam Meier.

Last week, Montana had the second-highest number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, per-capita, of any state. Yet Meier, director of the state Public Health and Human Services Department (DPHHS), said this week the real solution is one they’re leaving up to individual citizens — getting vaccinated.

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Adam Meier, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“There is no crystal ball to tell us when this is over,” he told MTN News in an interview this week. “I think the most effective thing that people can do, to get us out of this and to protect us, ourselves and our loved ones, is to get a vaccine.”

Gianforte himself and his administration preach the vaccine message when asked – and other Montana health officials give them generally good marks for rolling out and promoting vaccines when they became available this winter.

Vaccinations in Montana are still increasing, slowly. Since the beginning of July, almost 70,000 additional Montanans have become vaccinated against COVID-19, an increase of 16%. Yet Montana remains among the least-vaccinated states, at 49.3% of the population (Vermont is the highest, at 70.4%).

Some health officials and former health officials say while Gianforte has encouraged people to “consider” getting a vaccine, the administration has undercut that message by promising to fight any vaccine mandates from the federal government and signing the new law that prohibits private businesses or anyone from requiring vaccines.

“I think the message that there will be no mandates, that `I’m going to fight the feds for any vaccine mandate,’ I think undermines any other message of `talk to your doctor and get a vaccine,’” says Ellen Leahy, the longtime director of public health for Missoula County, who retired this summer. “We need to put two and two together and say, until we have a higher vaccination level, our schools, many of our residents, and our hospitals, remain at risk.”

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Ellen Leahy, former director of the Missoula County public health.

Health officials also fault the Gianforte administration for supporting other laws that have restricted how local public-health departments can respond to outbreaks of communicable disease.

Leahy told MTN News that in Montana’s decentralized system of public health, county and city health departments need to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances unique to their areas.

The Gianforte administration, along with the Republican-led 2021 Legislature, restricted that ability, she says.

“They took away fundamental tools for times just like this, and did it in the midst of a pandemic -- which I think was reckless,” Leahy says. “And it took away not only the ability to respond locally, it took away any agility locally.”

When asked whether actions restricting public-health departments or fighting vaccine mandates are helping beat back the pandemic, Meier says the Gianforte administration must consider “competing interests” in setting health policy, such as its impact on business.

“There are more limitations … to public health response, but there is also additional freedoms and liberties that people are enjoying,” Meier says. “We’re balancing competing interests, and I think people are supportive of the ability for people to continue to maintain freedoms and have employment, and those sorts of things.”

He also says that the Gianforte administration opposes mandates on “personal health decisions, as it relates to vaccines.”

“There’s a difference to being resistant to top-down mandates and being resistant to vaccines in general,” Meier says. “Every time we have a chance to message it, we talk about the safe and effective vaccines and why people should really consult with their physicians if they have concerns, to go out and get that vaccine.”

Two lawsuits have been filed in Montana – one in state court, one in federal court – challenging the ban on vaccine mandates as unconstitutional.

Beyond the vaccine and public-health debate, the Gianforte administration has taken many steps to assist Montana hospitals during the recent surge, says Rich Rasmussen, president of the Montana Hospital Association.

“They’re delivering the resources,” he told MTN News. “When we’re asking for (help) from the National Guard, for other relief, we’re getting it.”

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Rich Rasmussen, president of Montana Hospital Association.

Rasmussen says the administration has helped hospitals find additional beds for patients, through rule changes and other steps; assigned National Guard troops to hospitals; assigned state staffers to help hospitals get federal emergency funds, and pushed to make monoclonal antibodies available as treatment.

“Everyone is scrambling for staff; it is intense in every state,” he says. “The Gianforte administration is working very hard to provide extra sets of hands for our hospitals.”

Meier also says he and the governor appreciate the long hours being put in by healthcare workers and state staffers working to battle the effects of the pandemic.

“It’s been an incredible amount of work to maintain that high degree of response, and always being on – it takes a toll,” he says. “It’s thankless; it’s endless.”

For the past three weeks, at least 400 people have been hospitalized in Montana for COVID-19, hitting a record high of 510 last Tuesday. And since early September, Montana has been averaging more than 800 new COVID-19 cases a day – about 10 times the level in July.

Next: More details on the changes in public-health laws and actions taken by the Gianforte administration.