In late February, the 67th Montana Legislature appeared to have reached an impasse in the state’s long-running debate about vaccination. House lawmakers deadlocked on a proposal to relax state vaccine requirements, effectively killing a bill that had generated 2,791 phone calls and emails from constituents urging its passage. For House Bill 415’s proponents, the defeat was reminiscent of similar legislative disappointments from the 2019 session, and it hit hard.

“That was just a deflating moment for a lot of people,” Maria Wyrock, director of the grassroots group Montanans for Vaccine Choice, told Montana Free Press.

But in the session’s final days, those same proponents watched from the House gallery as the gears of Montana’s political engine shifted in their favor. It took little more than a month for HB 415’s original sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, to shepherd a new version of her proposal into law. And while House Bill 702 was a relative latecomer to the session’s proceedings, it quickly outpaced other measures in driving public comment, with legislative services reporting 8,078 phone calls and emails in support of the bill and 77 in opposition. 

The message echoing through much of the supporting testimony painted the issue as a matter of privacy, personal choice and nondiscrimination.

“My whole point of [HB] 702 was I don’t care if you get a vaccine or not,” Carlson said. “It’s none of my business. But we should not be discriminating against people from basic services and employment because of their private medical choice.”

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, speaks about House Bill 702 on the House floor. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of Montana Public Affairs Network

The passage of HB 702 was a major victory for vaccine skeptics in Montana, who have pushed the issue since 2015 and launched a concerted effort this year to rally public support to their cause. Prior to the session, MTVC distributed a citizen guide to creating impactful emails to send to lawmakers. A separate group, Montanans for Health and Family Rights, put out multiple calls on social media for supporters to show up at the Capitol for critical votes on HB 702, and hosted a “pray for liberty and health” gathering in the rotunda hours before the bill went to the House floor on May 26.

“More people are seeing that this is not just about a small, niche issue,” Wyrock said. “The level of support was astounding.”

Under the new law, private businesses and government agencies cannot deny people goods, services, educational opportunities, health care access or employment based on their vaccination status. Gov. Greg Gianforte amended the bill to allow hospitals to ask employees to volunteer their vaccination status, and to exempt certain long-term care facilities from the law if compliance conflicts with federal health regulations.

Debate over vaccination in Montana has reached a critical point in the past month, and not solely due to HB 702’s sudden trajectory into law. County health officials around the state report a considerable slowdown in vaccination rates for COVID-19, mirroring a national trend that many attribute to widespread public hesitancy. Ravalli County Health Director Tiffany Webber told MTFP this week that after an initial surge in interest this spring, the vaccination rate in the Bitterroot Valley has “hit a wall.” A total is tough to estimate, she said, since private pharmacies receive their doses directly from the federal government, but she guesses 30% of the Bitterroot’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. In response to the slowdown, her office is now planning to visit area businesses to offer the vaccine and create incentives such as prize drawings as they have for other vaccines. 

The forces driving hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine vary widely, from basic uncertainty about a shot that has yet to win full FDA approval to concerns involving infertility, microchips and DNA alteration that have been widely debunked by medical experts. According to a survey conducted this spring by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 51% of Montanans surveyed had yet to receive the vaccine. Of those, 17% said they probably would not get the vaccine, and 27% said they definitely won’t, with concerns about side effects, safety and the speed at which the vaccine was developed topping the list of reasons why.

“There’s fear on both sides. There’s people who are truly afraid of this virus. And on the other side of this, there’s people who are truly afraid of losing their freedom.”

Jolene Crum, Bozeman

The past month has demonstrated for Webber just how emotionally charged those concerns can be. She said she fielded a call recently from a man convinced the vaccine contained microchips, and recalls his wife pleading in the background for the county to stop administering it. Though she endeavors to respect people’s beliefs, her frustrations with residents who don’t take the threat of COVID-19 to heart run equally deep, carved out by a year of her department’s authority being challenged by calls for continued tourism and large-scale events like rodeos. That experience had led her to the conclusion that many unvaccinated Bitterroot residents agree with the survey’s 27% of stalwart vaccine refusers — enough that she said getting the immunization rate much higher will be difficult.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle,” she said. “I mean, there’s times when you just think to yourself, ‘Are we on another planet? Are we living on another planet down here, or what’s going on?’ Because the anti-vax movement is very well spoken, very well organized. They’re the most organized they’ve ever been.”

Health officials are unlikely to make inroads with those most fervently refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. Whether religious, political or personal, their convictions run strong. Jolene Crum made her beliefs a core component of her 2020 bid for a Montana House seat in Bozeman. She lost that bid to Democratic Rep. Kelly Kortum. But the issue is as fresh for her today as it was last fall, and with only the slightest nudge, she’s prepared to dive headlong into the sea of vaccine skepticism.

Crum’s path from a bachelor’s degree in biotech from Montana State University to staunch supporter of vaccine choice didn’t start with literature challenging the medical status quo, but rather with parenthood. As a mother of five, she said, she grew tired of taking her kids to the doctor for immunizations and returning home to deal with three-day fevers. Crum added that her eldest child had a serious adverse reaction to one vaccine — specifically a condition called ITP that results in low blood cell levels — that required hospitalization. When the time came to vaccinate her youngest son, she’d changed her thinking, putting her at odds with a family physician she’d long respected.

“I took baby number five in to my doctor that had been with me for all the four other ones and I said, ‘We’re not doing any of the vaccines. We’re done,’” Crum said. “And she just looked at me. She said, ‘You know I’m on the other side of this.’ And I said, ‘I know.’”

“Really all you can do is lovingly tell people your opinion, and you can’t force anyone to believe what you believe.”

Former Kalispell State Rep. David Dunn

Much of what Crum has embraced since then butts heads with the body of medical science the CDC, FDA and scores of health care professionals rely on to inform the public. She’s not a potential convert to the COVID-19 vaccine, but neither does she seek to block access for those who wish to get it. In a nation increasingly divided by personal perceptions of truth, Crum holds tight to a belief that personal choice and privacy should be protected, and an unwavering faith in the human body’s natural defenses.

“There’s fear on both sides,” Crum said. “There’s people who are truly afraid of this virus. And on the other side of this, there’s people who are truly afraid of losing their freedom.”

In many ways, the timing couldn’t have been more favorable for proponents of HB 702. Carlson said the heightened awareness of vaccination brought on by the pandemic, coupled with emergent criticism of staff vaccine policies at hospitals, put the issue at center stage this spring. She recognizes that her bill was branded as an “anti-vax” measure, but argues that her intent was not to block vaccination, but merely to protect people who opt against it from discrimination. She adds that another of her bills, House Bill 334, sought that same end. The measure relaxes requirements around medical exemptions for vaccines by allowing any health care provider authorized to administer immunizations to grant such an exemption. HB 334, which was signed into law last month, fueled 789 messages of support to lawmakers and 60 in opposition.

David Dunn, a former Republican state representative from Kalispell, carried a similar bill during his lone term in 2019. As a result of that sponsorship, he said, he was politically branded as an anti-vaxxer — a label he, like Carlson, refutes. Dunn won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade others in his family not to get it. His position stems from a distrust of pharmaceutical companies and a belief that people who have personal or religious aversions to vaccination shouldn’t face impediments to enrolling their kids in school or daycare. But, he said, if people do want to get vaccinated, everyone should have that access. 

“Really all you can do is lovingly tell people your opinion, and you can’t force anyone to believe what you believe,” Dunn said.

“I mean, there’s times when you just think to yourself, ‘Are we on another planet? Are we living on another planet down here, or what’s going on?’ Because the anti-vax movement is very well spoken, very well organized. They’re the most organized they’ve ever been.”

Ravalli County Health Director Tiffany Webber

It’s when efforts to boost vaccination rates translate into mandates from employers or schools that the rallying cry grows strongest among the skeptical, and the CDC’s recent recommendation that the Pfizer vaccine be administered to children age 12 to 15 has only amplified that call. Wyrock said that while MTVC isn’t actively recruiting, she and other members of her group are being “actively pursued” by people relocating to Montana from California, Oregon and other states where some private companies and universities have made the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory, and where public support for proof of vaccination requirements is strong.  

“They want to get involved and see what they can do to stop vaccine mandates in Montana,” Wyrock said, “because they’re fleeing those states where there’s vaccine mandates.”

With the temperature of the issue running so high the past few months, Wyrock acknowledges that people’s convictions have at times taken a dark turn. Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, reported receiving what he called “threatening” text messages in early February that referenced his vote against a vaccine discrimnation bill. In Ravalli County, Webber said, one of her biggest goals in crafting a COVID-19 vaccine message is “not getting shot” — a not-so-veiled reference to the death threats she said her office received last year.

“I don’t wear my badge in public,” Webber said. “For a long while, I had the sheriff escort me to any of my meetings that were off campus or any of my board of health [meetings]. We will not be pushing people to vaccinate, but we will be educating, encouraging and giving incentives.”

Wyrock said she doesn’t condone offensive or threatening actions by her members, noting that MTVC has a strict code of conduct and rules for ethical behavior. The organization’s whole philosophy, she said, is “to get the education to the people who want it.” She added that there are definitely people out there who take their positions to menacing extremes, but if they were ever within her group’s ranks, “I’ve weeded them out over the years.”

That HB 702 and HB 334 are now law constitutes an unprecedented legislative victory for Wyrock and others who have long cut a path counter to the world’s leading medical and scientific experts. They’ve gained that ground amid an even louder plea for normalcy, for an end to a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 1,598 Montanans and more than 580,000 Americans. They represent the hardest line in a wave of hesitancy that Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said is “the one thing that’s most likely to allow this virus to continue.” And for them, the decision is fundamental. The question facing Montana now isn’t whether diehard vaccine skeptics will compromise their principles, but how influential their message is.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.