This is the first in a two-part series on how Governor Greg Gianforte and his administration are responding to the surge in Covid-19 cases in Montana.
(KPAX) As Montana grapples with another deadly wave of COVID-19, with hospitalizations and workloads among the highest per capita in the country, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration says it is responding by doing everything possible to support ailing hospitals and medical facilities.
“We are working very diligently with hospitals and with other practitioners to help address both short-term needs, but also to improve the health workforce pipeline,” the top health official said. ‘State, Adam Meier.
Montana had the second highest number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, per capita, of any state last week. Yet Meier, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), said this week that the real solution is one they leave to individual citizens – get vaccinated.
“There is no crystal ball to tell us when it’s over,” he told MTN News in an interview this week. “I think the most effective thing people can do, to get us out of this and to protect ourselves and our loved ones, is to get vaccinated. “
Gianforte himself and his administration preach the vaccine’s message when asked – and other Montana health officials generally give them high marks for deploying and promoting the vaccines when they become available this winter.
Vaccinations in Montana continue to increase, slowly. Since the beginning of July, nearly 70,000 additional Montanais have been vaccinated against COVID-19, an increase of 16%. Still, 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 that while Gianforte encouraged people to “consider” getting vaccinated, the administration undermined that message by promising to fight any federal vaccine mandate and by signing the new law that prohibits private companies or anyone from needing vaccines.
“I think the message that there won’t be any warrants, that ‘I’m going to fight the federal government for any vaccine mandate’, I think that undermines any other message of ‘talk to your doctor and get a vaccine, ”said Ellen Leahy, longtime Missoula County public health director, who retired this summer. “We have to put two and two together and say, until we have a higher level of immunization, our schools, a lot of our residents and our hospitals, remain at risk.”
Health officials also blame the Gianforte administration for supporting other laws that have restricted how local public health departments can respond to outbreaks of communicable diseases.
Leahy told MTN News that in Montana’s decentralized public health system, county and city health departments must be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances unique to their area.
The Gianforte administration, as well as the 2021 Republican-led legislature, has restricted that capacity, she says.
“They took fundamental tools for times like this and did it in the midst of a pandemic – which I thought was unwise,” Leahy said. “And that took away not only the ability to respond locally, but also any agility locally.”
When asked if actions restricting public health services or mandates to fight vaccines were helping to fend off the pandemic, Meier said the Gianforte administration had to consider “competing interests” in defining the disease. health policy, as its impact on business.
“There are more limits… to the public health response, but there are also additional freedoms and freedoms that people enjoy,” Meier said. “We are balancing competing interests, and I think people support the ability of people to continue to maintain their freedoms and have jobs, and that sort of thing.”
He also says the Gianforte administration opposes mandates on “personal health decisions, regarding vaccines.”
“There is a difference between being resistant to top-down mandates and being resistant to vaccines in general,” Meier says. “Whenever we get the chance to pass it on, we talk about safe and effective vaccines and why people should really see their doctor if they have any concerns, to go out and get this vaccine.”
Two lawsuits have been filed in Montana – one in state court, one in federal court – challenging the ban on vaccination warrants as unconstitutional.
Beyond the vaccine and public health debate, the Gianforte administration took many steps to help Montana hospitals during the recent wave, said Rich Rasmussen, president of the Montana Hospital Association.
“They provide the resources,” he told MTN News. “When we ask (for help) from the National Guard, for other relief, we get it.”
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 personnel to help hospitals obtain federal emergency funds; and pushed to make monoclonal antibodies available as treatment.
“Everyone is scrambling to find staff; it’s intense in all states, ”he says. “The Gianforte administration is working very hard to provide extra pairs of hands to our hospitals.”
Meier also says that he and the governor appreciate the long hours that healthcare workers and state staff are putting into combating the effects of the pandemic.
“It’s been an incredible amount of work to keep that high level of response, and to always be on – it takes a toll,” he says. “It’s ungrateful; it is endless.
In the past three weeks, at least 400 people have been hospitalized in Montana for COVID-19, reaching a record 510 last Tuesday. And since early September, Montana has averaged more than 800 new COVID-19 cases per day, about 10 times the July level.