Only Montana State Banned Employee Vaccinations

ELENA, INSTALLATION. (AP) – While many large companies in the US have announced that COVID-19 vaccines will be required for their employees to return to work in person, there is one state where such requirements are prohibited: Montana.

A new law passed earlier this year by the Republican-controlled state legislature deemed it “discriminatory” and a violation of state human rights laws to require vaccinations as a condition of employment.

“Montana is the only state in the US to have this kind of law for private employers,” said Hemi Tewarson, executive director of the National Academy of Public Health Policy.

The law has raised concerns among employers across the state as Montana grapples with rising COVID-19 cases, putting another strain on the state’s health care system.

Resistance intensified this week when doctors called on the Legislature to repeal the law.

“This is contrary to everything we have ever known or believed in public health,” said Dr. Pamela Cutler, president of the Montana Medical Association. “I think this is a travesty right now and needs to be fixed so that we can make our rooms safe for patients and our colleagues.”

GOP lawmakers, who backed the bill in the state legislature, said it was needed in response to employers ‘coercing’ employees to get vaccinated under threat of firing. Some of the bill’s loudest supporters were Benefis Health System employees in Great Falls, who were told earlier this year that COVID-19 vaccines would be needed to save their jobs.

Benefit was forced to abandon the plan when the law was signed into law in May by Governor Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte, a former business executive who founded and ran a technology company, gave the bill the green light after he changed it, allowing healthcare providers to require unvaccinated workers and those who refuse to disclose their vaccination status to wear masks and other precautions.

This week he stood behind the law in the face of increased scrutiny.

“While the governor continues to urge Montana residents to receive safe and effective vaccines, this is voluntary and no one should face discrimination based on vaccination status,” Gianforte spokeswoman Brook Stroyk said in an email.

While the list of national corporations requiring vaccinations for their employees who want to return to work in person continues to grow, it now includes Google, Facebook, Walmart and United Airlines, a facility in Montana that does not.

“Most (businesses) feel like their hands are tied right now,” said Mike Rooney, COO of Downtown Helena Inc., an organization representing businesses in downtown Helena. “Some would definitely support a vaccination requirement or a mask requirement.”

The Montana Hospital Association opposed the law before it went into effect, warning that it would make it harder for the state to meet its health care needs. Now the association says their fears may come true.

Dr. Neil Koo, an epidemiologist at the Billings Clinic who serves on the board of the Health Epidemiology Society of America, said the law makes Montana stand out in conversations about how to fight the coronavirus.

“It’s very, very difficult for me to participate in a conversation when all over the country you can talk about vaccinating your employees, but I can’t,” Ku said.

Hospitals in Montana until recently required their employees to receive most of the Centers for Disease Control-approved vaccines, including an annual flu shot, giving employees the option to refuse them for medical or religious reasons. This is no longer possible, leaving both workers and patients vulnerable.

In the US, 60% of eligible people are vaccinated against COVID-19. In Montana, it is 49%.

In Montana hospitals, staff are vaccinated more frequently, but patients need to cope with additional health risks when seeking medical attention unnecessarily.

“It makes us look like an anomaly compared to the rest of the nation,” said Rich Rasmussen, president of the Montana Hospital Association. “We have to rely on recruiting from other states. The rest of the country looks at us and says, “I don’t know if I want to practice in Montana because of their approach to patient and staff safety as it relates to vaccinations.”

Like many states, Montana is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly contagious variant of the delta. According to a government report released earlier this week, 234 of the 240 beds at Benefis Hospital are occupied.

Faced with the threat of the coronavirus outbreak, employers in Montana must go their own way to keep employees safe and doors open.

“A lot of companies feel like they don’t have support right now, so it’s important to them how they figure it out on their own side,” Rooney said.

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