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

Gianforte urges religious exemptions for health care workers facing vaccine mandate

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Gov. Greg Gianforte is urging unvaccinated health care workers to consider using religious and medical exemptions ahead of an upcoming federal vaccine mandate deadline. Gianforte says health care workers should evaluate all their options.

Gov. Gianforte says Montana’s unvaccinated health care workers have alternatives prior to Monday’s deadline when employees must have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. They must be fully vaccinated by the middle of March.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month upheld vaccine mandates for medical facilities receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

In his open letter published Thursday, Gianforte suggested employees who oppose the mandate to consider using religious and medical exemptions. The letter included a template for unvaccinated employees seeking such exemptions. Gianforte also encourages unvaccinated workers to speak with colleagues or consult with their personal physicians about getting vaccinated.

Gianforte’s office tells Montana Public Radio the state is not tracking how many health care workers are filing for exemptions, but adds the governor has "spoken directly with hospital leaders who have reported thousands of health care workers securing an exemption for a sincerely held religious belief ."

Rich Rasmussen with the Montana Hospital Association doesn't think the governor’s letter is driving many new requests for exemptions or vaccinations.

"The hospitals had prepared for this going back to the original deadline before the Supreme Court stepped in," Rasmussen says. "It gave us more time to be able to move our team members into a place of compliance, whether that be through vaccination or through exemption.”

Rasmussen expects all the state’s hospitals will meet the federal vaccination regulation.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.