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Gov. Greg Gianforte encouraged Montanans to get vaccinated during a press conference on Tuesday, but insisted that there would be no mandates — for masks or vaccination — in the state.

Recognizing the increased spread of the delta variant in Montana, Gianforte spoke of the importance for Montana residents to get vaccinated, encouraging people on the fence to consult with their doctor. With the Pfizer vaccine getting fully-approved by the Food and Drug Administration Monday, Gianforte said that the time to get vaccinated is now.

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

August has seen more Montanans get vaccinated than any other month this summer, Gianforte said. Roughly 4,300 people received a vaccine last weekend. Just over 450,000, or around 50%, of the eligible population in the state have been fully-vaccinated.

Missoula County leads the state in vaccination rates, with around 62%, or over 65,000 fully-vaccinated people. Gallatin County is not far behind, with roughly 57%, or over 56,000 people.

Despite this, Montana is still lagging behind other states’ fully-vaccinated rates. In Maine, with a population of just over 1.3 million — roughly 200,000 more people than Montana — 65% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek, acting state medical officer for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said during the press conference that the delta variant has successfully replaced all other variants of COVID-19 in Montana, accounting for roughly 90% of all samples sequenced in the past few weeks.

Fully vaccinated people who are infected with COVID-19 can transmit the disease to other people, she said, but the highest rate of transmission is from the unvaccinated.

Montana saw a steady uptick in COVID-19 cases from July to August, with the largest statewide daily case count swelling to 720 on Tuesday. As of Tuesday, there were roughly 194 active cases of COVID-19 in Gallatin County.

Bekkie Kirsch-Wehner, a member of the Montana Department of Public Health and Services who runs vaccine distribution in the state, said that there has been an uptick in demand for vaccines. The CDC recommended third vaccine dose is available for immunocompromised people now, she said.

“Along with the increase in demands, we still, in Montana, have enough vaccines in our inventories to provide, without cost, to any individual who would like to get a vaccine,” Kirsch-Wehner said.

But a vaccination mandate won’t happen, the governor said.

“Let me be very clear, the state of Montana will not mandate COVID vaccinations. Period,” Gianforte said. “It’s a personal choice that should be made in consultation with a medical provider.”

Montana was the first state to sign into law the prevention of discrimination based on vaccination status with House Bill 702. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, prevents businesses or government entities from denying goods or services based on vaccination status.

Gianforte also insisted that the state would not impose a mask mandate. He said government mandates across the country have been proven to not work. A March 2021 study from the CDC that compiled data from March to Dec. 2020, indicated that within 20 days of mask mandate implementation, cases and deaths decreased.

A pair of bills from this year’s legislative session have all-but stifled the ability for local governments to enforce mask mandates.

House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, made it so local health boards could no longer adopt local health rules, like mask mandates, and instead propose them to elected officials, like a city or county commission.

House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedidiah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, took away the ability for local governments to enforce mask mandates, capacity limits or closures in local businesses. Businesses can still require customers to wear masks, but there is no ability for local governments to enforce mandates.

“The state of Montana will not impose a mask mandate,” Gianforte said. “The state of Montana will not impose a vaccine mandate.”

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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