HELENA — Editor’s note: This is the second 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 has become one of the nation’s hot spots for COVID-19, Gov. Greg Gianforte and his administration say they’ve consistently advised Montanans to do what they regard as the best “ticket out” of the crisis: Get vaccinated against Covid-19.
But former and current public-health officials say that message isn’t being made as forcefully as it could – and, that the governor and his administration have taken other steps that undercut local efforts to respond to the latest outbreak.
“We’re not using all the tools that are available to us, and it’s hard to think that is anything but political, with these anti-vax bills that were passed during the (2021) session, and with the emergency rule about masking (in schools),” says Jim Murphy, who was the state epidemiologist until he retired this summer.
The rule, referred to by Murphy, came down Aug. 31 from the state health department, saying school districts should allow for kids to get exemptions from face-mask mandates in schools this fall.
Two weeks later, 18 state epidemiologists and state health experts delivered a letter to Gianforte’s public-health director, Adam Meier, blasting the rationale of the rule. They said statements used to support the rule, on the supposed drawbacks or ineffectiveness of masks, were misleading and false.
Gianforte also has signed bills prohibiting discrimination against anyone based on their vaccination status and placing restrictions on how local public-health agencies can react to communicable disease outbreaks.
One bill says if a local entity enacts health restrictions stricter than the state, it can be denied a portion of federal COVID-19 relief funds for water or sewer projects.
Murphy also says state health officials were told not to promote COVID-19 vaccines for school-age children, in school settings this fall.
“Typically, for the start of the school year, there’s a pretty heavy effort to vaccinate kids for the routine childhood disease,” he told MTN News. “And a lot of that occurs within school settings, with school-based clinics. Yet we were discouraged from promoting anything that had to do with a school-based clinic on COVID.”
Meier, the director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), says he doesn’t recall making that directive.
But he did say that the administration’s approach on public health and school rules regarding COVID-19 has been to balance “competing interests,” such as concerns from parents who don’t want their child wearing masks or the impact on business and personal freedoms.
“We do not look at only the narrow public-health lens,” he told MTN News in an interview this week. “We also have to look at other health impacts, we have to look at personal liberties.”
On the emergency school face-mask rule, Meier said the agency had heard from “panicked parents” who felt school districts were ignoring their wishes that their child shouldn’t wear a mask, and were being told the child would have to learn from home.
“We wanted to make sure we provided guidance that created a framework for schools, to apply individual exemptions to the schoolwide mask mandate,” he says.
At the time, school officials said they already were giving parents options, and that the rule merely created confusion about the authority of school districts.
Greg Holzman, a physician and the state medical officer until he left the post this spring, says he’s concerned that the public is hearing mixed messages on how best to keep themselves safe and respond to the COVID-19 surge.
“The challenge that has happened in this country is how political things have gotten,” he told MTN News. “I don’t even know if we could have a unified approach right now. … We need leadership from all of our politicians, to speak up and work together.”
As of this week, nearly 500 Montanans are hospitalized for COVID-19 – more than four times the amount of just 10 weeks ago.
The state also now is among the highest in the nation, per capita, for hospitalizations and new cases.
Many health officials are particularly critical of the new law against vaccination discrimination, which they say essentially discourages people from getting vaccinated, reinforcing the Gianforte rhetoric against any health “mandates.”
While the law prohibits government entities and private businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated, its effect goes beyond that, Murphy says.
Because the law forbids discrimination based on vaccination status, it also prohibits most incentives offered to anyone to get vaccinated, and prohibits schools or anyone else from requiring the non-vaccinated to be quarantined longer than vaccinated people, he says.
“So you can’t even quarantine the folks who were exposed unless you quarantine everyone, which isn’t practical, because you shouldn’t be quarantining folks that are fully vaccinated,” Murphy says.
Meier says the administration doesn’t believe that opposing mandates discourage people from getting vaccinated.
“There’s a difference to being resistant to top-down mandates and being resistant to vaccines in general,” he says. “We’re going to continue to push personal responsibility, we’re going to continue to push good information that people can use to make sound health-care decisions for themselves and their families.”
Holzman says he believes most state and local health officials are doing all they can to help Montana get through the current crisis – but front-line workers are getting discouraged.
“Last year at this time, we all had that little light, going – `Oh, a vaccine’s going to come, we’re going to get immunized,’” he says. “I think a lot of providers right now, that I talk to, colleagues of mine, they’re exhausted and they’re also wondering, when does this end?”