Gov. Gianforte's changes to vaccine distribution plan draw criticism
Last updated 1/6/2021 at 11:58am
Gov. Greg Gianforte, in the first press conference of his term, announced changes to the state's vaccine distribution program, expanding Phase 1B to include Montanans older the age of 70 - it previously was 75 - and adding people older than 16 with underlying health conditions - previously scheduled for the next phase of vaccinations - but bumping front-line essential workers, such as teachers, first responders and grocery store employees, along with those in congregate care and correctional facilities, to a later phase unless they have underlying health conditions.
Native Americans are still part of Phase 1B.
The state is moving now to wrap up Phase 1A, vaccinating front-line health care workers, long-term care facilities and health care workers with direct exposure to patients with the virus.
Some local school districts have voiced displeasure with the vaccination schedule change. Look for more on this in a story in Thursday's edition of Havre Daily News.
Gianforte's decision has drawn the ire of many including the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
"For nine months now, educators and front-line workers across the state have been doing everything possible to keep our schools open and our economy moving," MFPE President Amanda Curtis said in a press release, "These Montanans have risked their own person health, and some have even died."
The release describes this move as "a slug in the gut to thousands of heroic Montanans," and said it will delay efforts in nearly every Montana community to keep schools open and move the economy forward.
Gianforte said the stated goal of the change is to prioritize vaccinating the most-vulnerable Montanans.
"We need to provide the vaccine to those that want it," Gianforte said, "We cannot have vaccines sitting on a shelf. That's why I have tasked DPHHS and (Montana COVID-19 Maj. Gen. Quinn) to begin the process of revising the vaccine distribution plan to prioritize the most vulnerable."
This announcement was accompanied by the stated intention to rescind the state-wide mask mandate by former Gov. Steve Bullock, but before that the state needs to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to protect individuals from the spread of coronavirus and follow clear public health guidelines, Gianforte said.
"After we have increased vaccine distribution and after I have legislation on my desk that protects businesses, schools, places of worship, and nonprofit organizations that follow guidelines from lawsuits, then we will rescind the current statewide mask mandate," he said.
He said he believes that incentivising personal responsibility is preferable to the enforcement of impractical mandates.
The Montana Democratic Party bashed the decision to lift the mask mandate.
"COVID kills jobs. It kills small businesses. By moving to prematurely lift the mask mandate, Gianforte is placing thousands of lives and jobs in danger," Executive Director Sandi Luckey said. "A thriving economy requires a healthy workforce - Gianforte is well on his way to making sure we have neither."
The revision may necessitate a change in plans from local public health in Hill County and beyond.
"We have been working with NMH and Bullhook calling different identified groups for Phase 1B," said Hill County Public Health Director and Health Officer Kim Larson said in an email this morning. "These new guidelines will undo that work."
Blaine County is facing a similar situation.
"The timing of the change was unfortunate, as many public health departments were working on communicating their transition plans," said Blaine County Public Health Nurse and Health Officer Jana McPherson-Hauer.
She said the Blaine County Health Department will continue to take phone calls from people who fit into 1B as defined by the original phased approach and will adjust our message to include the groups the governor has described.
Then, she said, following further clarification from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, they will schedule appointments based on the current plan.
MFPE President Curtis said the change will hurt operations of facilities like schools.
"Gov. Gianforte outlined during his press conference that Montana will have only 1/3 of the doses needed to vaccinate everyone in line ahead of educators and front-line workers, leaving essential workers waiting for doses that will not reach Montana for months," the release said. "That's not good enough to keep schools open and government running."
The release also took issue with Gianforte's promise to lift the mask mandate, calling said mandate the number one protection currently keeping Montanans safe at work.
The potential rescinding of this mandate has prompted the Whitefish City Council to pass Emergency Ordinance 21-01, which will require the continued use of face coverings in that city if the governor lifts the existing statewide face covering directive. The ordinance would remain effective for 90 days following the anticipated elimination of the existing statewide face covering directive.
"Due to the overwhelming consensus of current medical and scientific evidence indicating that wearing face coverings reduces the transmissibility of COVID-19, and the comments received during the public hearing, the City of Whitefish will continue to require their use," a release from the City of Whitefish says.
"The City remains committed to following the recommendations of our public health leaders to protect its citizens, visitors, and our most vulnerable population," Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said in the release.