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Attorney General Austin Knudsen spoke Monday to a meeting of health care workers and community members in Sidney, where some employees of the Sidney Health Center have been protesting the hospital’s announcement that it will comply with a federal vaccine mandate for health care providers that receive Medicaid and Medicare funding. Employees at such organizations across the state must show proof that they’ve received at least one dose of vaccination by next Monday, Dec. 6, per new guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS).

The meeting was advertised on Facebook by the group Conservatives United for Richland County (CURG) as being open to the public but prohibiting photos and recordings. The advertisements also said that only Sidney Health Center employees would be allowed to engage in discussions with the invited speakers, including Knudsen, Maria Wyrock of Montanans for Vaccine Choice and state Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville. 

Sidney Health Center spokesperson Rita Steinbeisser said Monday that the event was not associated with the hospital and that the organization’s senior administrators did not plan to attend. She said she would not speak on behalf of the hospital’s employees regarding the hospital’s compliance with the vaccine mandate.

“This is a decision that was regulated by CMS, and so we are doing what is recommended by CMS and what other hospitals are doing around the state,” Steinbeisser said. 

The Daily Montanan reported Monday that the Montana Hospital Association is unaware of a hospital in the state that plans to oppose the mandate.

Knudsen spokesperson Emilee Cantrell said Monday afternoon that she did not have any prepared remarks to provide to Montana Free Press and declined to record the attorney general’s address, which was delivered via Zoom, saying only that Knudsen “plans to discuss state law” and updates to Montana’s lawsuit against the vaccine mandate.

“If Sidney Health Center [and the hospital CEO] do not relent, they’re not going to have a hospital … They will have a two-bit clinic where the best somebody might get is stitches.”

Fellowship Baptist Church pastor Jordan Hall

The event took place at Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney and was coordinated in part by the congregation’s pastor, Jordan Hall. In an interview with MTFP Monday, Hall, a CURG member who publishes the conservative website Montana Daily Gazette, downplayed his role in organizing the event even as he acknowledged that he promoted it on Facebook and personally invited Knudsen to speak. 

Hall said he wanted to provide a gathering place for frustrated hospital employees and that he is concerned the hospital will lose valuable medical expertise if it requires vaccination as a condition of employment. Hall said his wife is a hospital employee.

“If Sidney Health Center and [the hospital CEO] do not relent, they’re not going to have a hospital,” Hall said. “… They will have a two-bit clinic where the best somebody might get is stitches.”

Hospital CEO Jennifer Doty has estimated that two-third of the hospital’s staff is vaccinated, according to the Sidney Herald. 

The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care facilities largely does not make exceptions for employees based on job title or level of patient interaction. Employees are allowed to submit requests for religious and medical exemptions, which the hospital reviews.

The mandate was temporarily blocked by a federal judge Monday for health care workers in 10 states that filed a legal challenge in early November. That group does not include Montana, which joined a separate and later lawsuit against the mandate at Knudsen’s direction.

According to Hall, one of the goals of the meeting was for opponents of vaccine mandates to discuss legal “options” with hospital employees who don’t want to get vaccinated and have not been approved for religious or medical exemptions.

“Because we’re afraid that people are going to quit and then find out the next day they didn’t have to,” Hall said. “… We want people to be fired instead of quitting.”

In a Facebook post following the event, CURG pledged to push for the resignation of Sidney Health Center leadership and the board of directors. The post pointed to a “Religious Liberty Fund” associated with Hall’s church to solicit “money necessary to fight legally for SHC employees, with attorneys from around the country with national legal organizations if push comes to shove.”

Protesters in Sidney and elsewhere in the state rallied against the health care worker vaccine mandate on Sunday, a display of the fierce opposition to governmental efforts to boost inoculation nationwide. The Biden administration has repeatedly argued that vaccinations are the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19

Knudsen, along with Gov. Greg Gianforte and many other Republican elected officials in Montana, have for months voiced objection to mandates and reiterated their stance that medical decisions regarding vaccination should be made by individuals. 

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.