Gov. Greg Gianforte holds a press conference at the Capitol on Aug. 24, 2021, to discuss the state's COVID-19 response. Credit: Courtesy Montana Public Affairs Network

HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte Tuesday doubled down on his personal-responsibility-or-bust strategy for pulling through the state’s renewed surge of COVID-19 cases, encouraging unvaccinated Montanans to consider getting their shots while pledging to avoid mandates about vaccines, face masks or business closures.

“The best path forward to ensure we keep making progress on the recovery is for Montanans to get vaccinated,” the Republican governor said, speaking at the first formal press conference he has held at the Capitol since the Legislature adjourned in late April.

“The state of Montana will not impose a mask mandate and the state of Montana won’t impose a vaccine mandate,” he said. He added, “we will not impose a government-mandated shutdown of our state.” 

The conference followed a separate press conference held last week by a coalition of Montana public health groups in an effort to highlight how fast the state’s case counts have risen as a result of the Delta COVID-19 variant. The Delta variant, which is more highly contagious than the strain of the virus that prompted then-Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to issue a stay-at-home-order last year, is now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in Montana.

The public health groups said COVID hospitalization numbers had risen to the point that some Montana facilities were effectively out of space, with some forced to hold patients in emergency rooms while waiting on other accommodations and others forced to send patients out of state. 

The health advocates also urged Montanans to get vaccinated and wear face masks in public spaces in high-transmission counties in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines published in response to the renewed pandemic surge nationally.

“The medical community has been appealing for help. We are worried about our ability to provide safe care to everyone should these trends continue,” Montana American Academy of Pediatrics Vice-President Lauren Wilson said in an interview this week. “And so we’re urging the public to do what they can, and we’re urging every level of government to help with this preventable crisis.”

The new COVID-19 surge, which has seen Montana numbers rise since the beginning of July even with half of eligible residents now fully vaccinated, comes as most Montana school districts prepare to restart their fall classes in person, bringing kids together in close quarters that even in the pre-COVID world routinely facilitated the spread of respiratory diseases ranging from the common cold to the measles.

As of Aug. 24, Montanans 12 and older are eligible for at least one of the available COVID-19 vaccines. The CDC has also said it now recommends a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to people who are immunocompromised, and that booster shots will be offered this fall for people who are eight months beyond their second dose.

Gianforte, a conservative Republican whose political base includes many Montanans who are highly skeptical of the vaccine and government public health efforts more broadly, campaigned on a lighter touch with anti-pandemic efforts during last year’s election. He has been critical of Bullock-era measures like the state mask mandate, which he lifted in February.

As case counts declined through spring and early summer, Gianforte’s administration stepped down some of the state’s COVID-19 efforts. He announced an end to Montana’s declared pandemic state of emergency June 30. Montana Major Gen. Matthew Quinn, who led a state COVID-19 task force under both Bullock and Gianforte, was confirmed to a post in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier that month. The governor hasn’t named a replacement.

Gianforte has been a consistent advocate for the COVID-19 vaccines as an essential tool for fighting the pandemic. He allowed a journalist to take his photo as he received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in April, for example.

Even so, Gianforte delivered vaccine critics a major victory in May by signing House Bill 702, which prevents most Montana businesses from treating employees or customers differently on the basis of vaccination status. The law is the only one of its type in the nation, according to the Associated Press. Advocates have called it a way to protect individuals’ freedom to make private medical choices. Medical organizations including the Montana Hospital Association have been staunchly opposed, arguing that the law makes it difficult for health care providers to protect patients by ensuring staff are vaccinated against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. 

Some school officials have worried the law could prevent them from requiring quarantine periods for unvaccinated students after potential in-school COVID-19 exposures while keeping asymptomatic, vaccinated students in class.

Public health advocates, meanwhile, have said Gianforte could be more vocal about his public health messaging generally. 

“I see much more full-throated appeals to mask and vaccinate coming from Republican governors in other states,” said Wilson, the pediatrician.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, launched a statewide vaccine promotion tour this summer in an effort to push back on misinformation, holding a series of forums intended to persuade constituents to listen to medical professionals about the vaccine’s safety.

Another Republican governor, Utah’s Spencer Cox, forcefully denounced right-wing anti-vaccine rhetoric at a July press conference

“We have these talking heads who have gotten the vaccine and are telling other people not to get the vaccine. That kind of stuff is ridiculous, it’s damaging, and it’s killing people,” Cox said.

Gianforte’s office took to Facebook Monday to share a pro-vaccine message on the governor’s official page: a link to a Fox Business story about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration upgrading the Pfizer vaccine from emergency to full-fledged approval status. The public response provided a partial window into the political landscape Gianforte is navigating.  

“With the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Montanans can have even greater confidence that these vaccines are safe, effective, and saving lives,” the governor wrote. “I encourage Montanans to speak to their medical provider about getting one today.”

A few of the 500-plus Facebook users who commented on the post responded positively. Most did not. 

“Wrong thing to say governor!” wrote user Jenny Silvan Maran.

“Those of us who understand the subject, know better. Those of us with discernment, know better. Those of us who are critical thinkers, know better,” wrote another user, Kent Grabau. “I really thought you were in this camp but I wonder.”

“Stop capitulating to Pharma and the overlords, Governor,” wrote user Krista Wissing Harrison. “Stay true to Montana, true to yourself. Stay focused on why this state voted red down the line: preserving freedom in the face of tyranny.” Harrison’s comment garnered more than 50 likes.

Those comments notwithstanding, Gianforte reiterated his soft-sell message on vaccination as he stepped to the governor’s podium Tuesday, unmasked and flanked by state health department employees. The challenges created by the Delta variant are real, he said, and are particularly dangerous for unvaccinated Montanans.

“There couldn’t be a more important time to get vaccinated. The vaccines have been researched, they’ve been rigorously tested, and they work,” Gianforte said.

He stopped short of endorsing a renewed push for public masking, though, instead criticizing the CDC’s evolving guidance as “all over the map” and saying the state’s experience has shown that “government mandates don’t work.”

Wilson, the pediatrician, said she was disappointed by the latter statement. She pointed to a study out of Kansas that found counties there that adopted mask mandates ended up with lower disease rates.

“The science has conclusively concluded that they do work,” Wilson said. “And taking that off the table will result in more deaths and cases than would otherwise be the case.”

Gianforte defended his approach to messaging about the vaccine as well:

“When it comes down to it, people who are hesitant to get the vaccine don’t want a lecture. They don’t respond to sanctimony and virtue signalling,” he said. “They want to be talked to with respect. They trust their personal medical provider to talk to them about the vaccine, answer their questions, clear up any uncertainty and provide medical guidance. They don’t want to hear from me, national figures, interest groups, or even the press. It’s not effective.”

A few minutes later, the governor added that he considers it unfortunate that the vaccine has been politicized. 

“Politics shouldn’t be part of this,” Gianforte said.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.