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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

With Mask Mandates Restricted, Health Officials Focus On Boosting Vaccination Rates

Moderna COVID vaccine in a small bottle

Montana counties are trying different approaches to slow the Delta variant of the coronavirus now that it’s the most predominant variant in the state and they don’t have the same power to mandate masks. Health officials are focusing on getting vaccination rates up.

Recent federal guidance encourages vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in certain circumstances, but Montana public health officials don’t have the same authority to put in place mandates seen earlier in the pandemic.

Madison County had a mask mandate in place this winter. Madison County Director of Public Health Emilie Sayler says locals have been resistant to wearing masks and now her office is focused on getting more people vaccinated.

“You know, if we can offer education to help anybody to make that decision we would like to put our efforts there. Rather than working toward restrictions for our community,” Sayler says.

Missoula County health officer D’Shane Barnett says the county, which also previously had a mask mandate, will continue to provide education about the importance of wearing a mask.

“It’s become a choice. It’s not a mandate, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t choose to do the right thing,” Barnett says.

He says vaccinations remain the best tool against contracting and spreading the disease.

This year, Montana lawmakers passed laws that require health boards get approval from governing bodies to issue mask mandates. Another law prohibits governments from enacting regulations that force businesses to deny customers service.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks also play a role for vaccinated people, who can spread the Delta variant to others. While vaccines help prevent severe illness and death, the CDC recently found that the variant spreads more easily than the common cold, the 1918 flu and smallpox. That data was first reported by the Washington Post.

Jean Branscum is the CEO of the Montana Medical Association and says the best thing the state can do is get more people vaccinated.

“Otherwise, we’ll continue to see a Delta variant now and we’re going to see another variant down the road.”

Montana Lags In Vaccination Rate

The United States has now vaccinated 70 percent of its population with at at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The latest data show Montana is behind that, with a little more than half of eligible Montanans having received at least one dose.

President Joe Biden had hoped to reach his goal of 70 percent of the population vaccinated by July 4, but the U.S. didn’t hit that mark until this week.

According to Montana’s state health department, about 53 percent of eligible people in the state have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of July 23. Forty-eight percent are fully vaccinated.

Montana reported 402 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, which is the first time since January the state has seen more than 400 cases in a day.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the state’s progress.

Missoula county has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in the state. Garfield County has the least.

Freddy Monares is a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.