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exemptions

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Charlie O’Neill received part of her husband’s liver in a 2013 living donor transplant and has been taking drugs that suppress her immune system ever since to prevent her body from attacking the organ.

“I frequently get infections,” she said. “Just being an immune-compromised person, you are faced with just every little cold and flu.”

O’Neill lives in the small town of Pony in southwestern Montana’s Madison Valley. Despite living in an uncrowded rural setting, O’Neill said, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic was terrifying. She rarely left home, waiting for COVID-19 vaccines to become available.

Even now, after being vaccinated, O’Neill said the virus is always on her mind when she drives into nearby Bozeman for groceries and other basic needs. She wears a mask and avoids people as much as she can. While vaccinations provide robust protection against hospitalization and death for the typical individual, they are far less effective in those who are immunocompromised.

O’Neill developed abscesses on her liver, requiring daily visits to the Bozeman hospital for antibiotic infusions. In a state where the governor has encouraged health workers to seek vaccination exemptions, she worried about which of the many people involved in her care were instead putting her at risk: the people checking her in at the front desk, the traveling nurses, the imaging technicians?

Related: Latest COVID variant is rising overseas. How will Florida fare?

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office estimates that “thousands of health care workers” have obtained religious exemptions and “remain in the workforce,” according to a recent press release.

“I so boldly ask people often just if they’re vaccinated, especially if I have to take my mask off for MRIs or something like that,” O’Neill said. She said she’d request someone else if a worker told her he or she were unvaccinated or declined to answer, but that hasn’t happened.

Most medical staffers across the U.S. are now required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 under a federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rule. While, legally, requests for religious or medical exemptions must be allowed at every institution, in much of the country they are reviewed carefully and approved judiciously. In New York City’s 12-hospital public system, for example, 100 percent of staff members inside the hospitals are vaccinated; the few who were granted exemptions are assigned outside tasks.

But in Montana, the pendulum has swung in a different direction.

Gianforte, a Republican who opposed the federal mandate, encouraged health workers to seek religious exemptions before the Feb. 14 deadline to receive one dose of vaccine. His administration provided guidance to hospitals that said the validity of health care workers’ religious beliefs shouldn’t be questioned in seeking exemptions. Gianforte also told the state health department to create an application for religious exemptions, which is posted at the top of its website to download.

When asked for an interview with Gianforte, spokesperson Brooke Stroyke referred to the governor’s open letter to health workers dated Feb. 10.

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