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Montanans 16 And Up To Become Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccine April 1

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte Tuesday said all Montanans, 16 and older, will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine starting Apr. 1.

Pointing to signs that the national supply of COVID-19 vaccine is ramping up and a number of Montana counties nearly complete with the current vaccination phase, Gov. Gianforte said it was time for the state to prepare for its next milestone at the start of next month.

“We will make these safe, effective vaccines available to every Montanan who wants one. To handle this expansion, we’re looking at how to continue working with our pharmacy partners so they can tap more into the state supply and get vaccines in arms," Gianforte said.

Gianforte's announcement Tuesday came after President Joe Biden said last week the vaccine would be available to all adults in the country by May 1.

State Coronavirus Task Force leader Major General Matthew Quinn says the timeline for getting shots into Montanans’ arms depends on the national supply of vaccine. Montana was allocated over 25,000 first doses of vaccine this week.

“I would estimate at least by mid-May, probably end of May, Montanans that want the vaccine will have the vaccine in their arms and that will continue as vaccines continue to go up, the vaccine supply," Quinn said.

Quinn and Gianforte were not able to give hard numbers on how counties are progressing through vaccinating people age 60 and older and those with certain underlying health conditions eligible under the current Phase 1B+ of the state’s distribution plan. A handful of smaller counties have recently posted to social media that they are ready to provide shots to anyone who wants one.

Park County Health Officer Dr. Laurel Desnick says, overall, it’s a positive move that more people will have the opportunity to get vaccinated.

“My only concern is that there are some front line workers who have really stepped up for the entire past year for all of us to keep the grocery stores open, the Post Office, the library, and I want to be sure they don’t get lost in the mix as April first approaches," Desnick said.

The state’s new vaccine plan skips Phase 1C, which would have prioritized frontline essential workers and people in congregate care and correctional facilities who did not already qualify for a vaccine.

Gianforte previously said the state would use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of essential workers that includes people who work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety and public health.

Several county health officers, including Desnick, told YPR they first heard the news about the changes to the state’s vaccination plan during the governor’s press call.

Desnick says it’s hard to know how close Park County is to completing Phase 1B+ until demand drops off. She says for the county to move faster, the state would need to allocate a higher volume of vaccines.

“We at the health department, with all of our vaccine providers in the county, have been talking about this moment, and so yes, I do believe that we will be ready for a large volume vaccination program," Desnick said.

Eric Merchant, Communicable Disease Division Administrator for Lewis and Clark Public Health, says Lewis and Clark County is in a similar situation. He says they have enough staff, high volume vaccination pods and mobile clinics, providers and federal pharmacies but not enough vaccine.

“I feel like at this time, we’re operating at about 30 percent of our capacity. As long as the vaccine comes to support the new phase, we’re there. We’re ready to go," Merchant said.

Merchant says his team has been moving solidly through Phase 1B+ and that they’ll be ready for Apr. 1.

“It’s just exciting. We’re moving through the population and we’re getting folks protected. We hope that people can focus on this is a safe and effective way to get back to normal," Merchant said.

Joe Russell, health officer of the Flathead City-County Health Department, says when the governor made his announcement Tuesday, “My first thought is, ‘Well, good, now we can get the teachers in,’ but they’re only one of several categories of essential workers, and we continue to get As, traditional 1Bs and 1B+s so we could have another three weeks of just doing nothing but age prioritization to get even to this open tier.”

Russell says Flathead County has an estimated 12,000 people who qualify for Phase 1B+ alone.

To prevent a deluge of people signing up for a vaccine on Apr. 1, Russell says the Flathead City-County Health Department has decided to open up its online COVID-19 vaccination form to anyone 16 and up who wants a vaccine.

“Because we can ask them occupation; we can ask them age; we can ask them if they are 1B+ so we can continue to prioritize 1A and 1B," Russell said.

Russell says it may take three months to get through everyone who wants a vaccine in Flathead County. He says, unlike some other counties, getting enough vaccines each week is not the issue; it’s driven by not having enough sites to administer the vaccines and not enough staff, adding that most of the staff at the hospital and health department have other work duties.

A spokesperson for Yellowstone County’s Health Department said they’ve always followed the governor’s lead on when to move to new vaccination distribution phases. When asked how the county was progressing with Phase 1B+, she said Riverstone Health still has some vaccination slots open for people this Thursday and Friday.

Missoula County says it will move forward in-line with the Governor's plan on April 1.

"Missoula County has been preparing for advanced tiers of vaccine administration and, with our more than two dozen vaccinating partner agencies, we have the infrastructure ready to receive and administer a much greater supply of vaccine," Health Officer Ellen Leahy said.

The Gallatin County Vaccine Task Force will discuss the Governor’s new direction on March 23.

A press release from the county said, “We will be working with our vaccination partners to ensure consistency and how we can prioritize at-risk individuals who have not yet been vaccinated. The community needs to recognize that while the pool of those eligible has been expanded, our allocation of vaccine has not been increased.”

Around 14% of people in Montana have been fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center.