How Republicans in Montana hijacked public health and brought a hospital to the brink

by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jenny Deam, research by Mollie Simon, photo illustrations by Kitra Cahana, special to ProPublica

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This story reports  what happened after Montana passed an extreme anti-vaccine

law and then the Delta variant hit.

Michael Lerner

Vicky Rae Byrd had a sinking feeling.

As she scrolled through her phone on election night, her pick for president — Joe Biden — seemed to have a slight edge. Byrd was too stressed to turn on the local news. Her husband sat down with her in their living room, and the couple settled on some sitcom.

Montana had long voted Republican in presidential elections. But it had a Democratic governor for the past 16 years, and that was almost certain to end. Ending with it, Byrd feared, would be the state’s aggressive response to COVID-19.

Byrd, 58, with long silver hair, had been sounding early warnings as director of the Montana Nurses Association, which lobbies for the state’s 18,000 nurses, many of them unionized. She’d been a nurse herself for 33 years, most of them at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, working in pediatric cancer.

“Nurses are really good at foreseeing,” she recalled. “I’m like, shut down before it gets here! Then, one case gets here, and I’m like: ‘Shut down, hold down the state. Keep me safe.’”

By that fall, many voters were fed up with departing Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate and stay-at-home order. Small businesses complained they were suffocating, Montana’s economy was struggling and efforts to control the virus were colliding head-on with the state’s deeply ingrained belief in personal freedom.

As election night wore on, Byrd kept sneaking glances at her phone. She saw votes piling up for the Republican candidate, multimillionaire businessman Greg Gianforte, who was running against Bullock’s lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney. A Donald Trump acolyte who’d gained national attention for pleading guilty to assaulting a reporter on the eve of his 2017 election to Congress, Gianforte had called for the speedy development of COVID-19 vaccines but answered few questions about how he’d fight what he called “this invisible enemy.” He had, however, made it clear he supported personal responsibility over mandates.

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