Gianforte discusses COVID-19 policies; county health board meets Jan. 6

Gov. Gianforte, who was sworn in Monday, said during a Tuesday press conference that he intends to rescind the statewide mask mandate that former Gov. Steve Bullock had implemented in July.

But, he won’t rescind the mandate until the vaccine is more widely available, specifically to people over 70 and those with specific underlying health conditions, and that he has legislation on his desk that would protect businesses, schools, houses of worship and nonprofits from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and follow public health guidelines.

He did not give a specific timeline on when that would happen.

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Gianforte said he’ll have updates regarding the current restrictions on operating capacity and hours in the coming days.

He said that he’s changing the state’s vaccination plan to include all Montanans over 70 and those 16-69 with specific underlying conditions to be in the second phase of vaccinations.

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Gianforte said in a Jan. 5 press conference that there are about 250,000 people in that group of people, but that not everyone would take the vaccine.

Under Bullock’s vaccination plan, the second group to receive vaccinations included about 90,000 Montanans, those aged 75 and older, “frontline essential workers, those in congregate care and correctional facilities and American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19.” The third phase of Bullock’s plan included about 171,000 people including those 65 and older, those 16-64 with underlying conditions and essential workers.

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Gen. Matt Quinn, who is heading Gianforte’s COVID-19 task force, said that currently, those in longer care and assisted living are being vaccinated through CVS Pharmacy.

Gianforte said that the state had received 36,000 first doses of the vaccine so far and is slated to receive another 41,000 first doses in the coming weeks.

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He said that as of Jan. 4, about 23,000 Montanans had received the first dose.

Of those in the first phase of the vaccination plan, Gianforte said than in some communities, about 40 percent of those eligible had taken the vaccine and in others, it was up to 75 percent.

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis released a statement following Gianforte’s press conference and said that he moved educators and other frontline workers to the back of the line.

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“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. These Montanans have risked their own person health, and some have even died,” Curtis said. “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. Today’s decision to delay the ability of teachers, school employees, and other front-line workers to receive vaccines is unfortunate and a slug in the gut to thousands of heroic Montanans. The threat to lift Montana’s mask mandate coupled with the decision to delay vaccinations for educators and front-line workers undermines and delays efforts in nearly every Montana community to keep schools open and our economy moving forward. The math doesn’t add up, the timeline is flawed, and the policy is misguided.”

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Current state law allows local public health agencies to institute stricter laws than those imposed by the state, as has been done in some communities for months.

The Cascade County City-County Board of Health meets Jan. 6 to discuss local COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said she could see the board instituting a local mask mandate until the virus is under better control.

In October, the local health board adopted restrictions that limited the number of people who could be at events and gatherings, and the operating capacity of many businesses until the county’s case rate was 25 per 100,000 for four consecutive weeks.

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Those restrictions went into effect Nov. 1 and the case rate varied between 66 to 227 per 100,000 since then.

Last week was the first that the county hit 25 per 100,000.

The rate will be calculated again on Jan. 6.

On Jan. 5, the county added 100 new cases, after dropping to double digits for about two weeks.

Cascade County’s total is 6,755 and of those, 615 are currently active, according to the state map.

Gianforte said he believes incentives will be more effective than directives and that he will emphasize personal responsibility. He said he will continue to wear a mask.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said.