Editor's note: A rebuttal to this op Ed by House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, was published recently.
One of the most important roles of leaders is to help us to recognize where we are and where we’re going. They show us the map and help us see why we should choose this route or that. Good leaders frame reality for the group.
In bills that discourage vaccinations and remove authority from public health officials, Gallatin Republican legislators are taking us in the wrong direction by framing a false reality in which the threat of COVID is minimized. Despite the fact that Montana’s vaccination rate is less than 50%, Governor Gianforte signed these bills, endangering the health of all of us, stressing our health care systems as the hospitals fill with mostly unvaccinated patients, and increasing health care costs.
Montana’s low vaccination rates are partly due to misinformation, but we can’t ignore the large role played by Montana’s elected leaders. Montana Republicans have consistently denied and minimized the dangers of COVID. Most Republican legislators refused to mask or social distance during the recent legislative session. Some advanced conspiracy theories. For instance, Senator Keith Regier (R-Kalispell), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed concern on the Senate floor about those who might be “putting a little chip in with the vaccine.”
Few have contributed more to the current COVID spike than have Gallatin County Representatives Jennifer Carlson (R-Manhattan) and Jedediah Hinkle (R-Belgrade). Each sponsored dangerous legislation that has contributed to the low vaccination rate and has hamstrung efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
Carlson’s bill, HB 702, prohibited not just government entities, but private businesses from deciding whether their employees or customers should be vaccinated. The law applies not only to COVID, but includes other vaccines that protect against transmissible diseases, such as measles, hepatitis, and even the flu. Medical professionals, hospitals and other health care groups argued strongly against it. Even nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Montana have to let unvaccinated employees treat their elderly patients, according to a new state ruling.
Carlson’s law is not only bad health policy, but, while offered in the name of “freedom”, it is an attack on the freedom of private businesses to protect their employees and customers in ways that work best for their business. Montana now has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country that prohibits private businesses from making their own decisions about vaccinations. For companies considering whether to locate or hire in Montana, this anti-business stance could push them to set up shop or hire workers in any state but ours.
Rep. Hinkle joined Carlson’s push by co-sponsoring her bill, calling it “the most important bill of the session,” and by sponsoring another anti-vaccine bill, HB 703, which failed to pass in the Senate. He succeeded, however, in passing his HB 257, which severely limits the tools used by public health officials to fight the current COVID spike, as well as whatever public health crisis we may face next. On the House floor, Hinkle slandered Gallatin’s public health officials, falsely claiming that they silenced anti-mask protesters by not allowing them to speak at a hearing. In fact, according to the Chronicle, the hearing had to be cancelled because these people had become an unruly mob that refused to follow law enforcement’s directions and threatened our health officials.
These bills were offered in the name of “freedom,” even while removing freedom from private businesses to decide what is best for their business. More important, great leaders understand that there can be no freedom without responsibility to others. Gallatin Republican leaders minimized a disease which has killed over 1,700 Montanans and hospitalized 5,800 more. Had more people chosen to be vaccinated, this latest surge could have been avoided, but Gallatin Republican leaders chose divisiveness over unity, and championed their irresponsible version of ‘freedom” over the sanctity of human life.