Montana Counties Adjusting COVID-19 Vaccine Plans Ahead Of April Start Of Phase 2
Following Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s announcement that all Montanans aged 16 and up will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting April 1, larger counties are outlining varying timelines and approaches for how they’ll meet that goal.
Most Montana counties are currently vaccinating people who fall into the state’s Phase 1B+, which includes those who are 60 years and up and people with certain medical conditions.
The Gallatin County Vaccine Task Force Tuesday decided the county will move in line with the state’s vaccination plan on Apr. 1 while also working to ensure the people who qualify for the current vaccination phase do not get left behind.
Health Officer Matt Kelley said striking that balance could look like reserving a certain percentage of slots or one of the vaccination clinics for people eligible for the state’s Phase 1B+ category.
“We’re trying to figure out how to deal with really two competing demands," Kelley said. "We’re going to have people who are in the older age categories who have been waiting and I think deserve a chance at it. We want to continue to give them that opportunity, but I think we also feel like we need to open it up and follow the state guidelines.”
Bozeman Health’s Incident Command Lead Kallie Kujawa said the two-hospital, nonprofit integrated health care delivery system will send out invitations to patients who qualify for Phase 1B+.
“And then if we don’t get all of our slots filled, it is actually a little bit of a relief to have that umbrella of everyone else. So then we can send additional invites to other people who have expressed interest or individuals that the providers have flagged in their electronic health record as being very interested,” Kujawa said.
Matt Kelley said an estimated 35,000 people in Gallatin County qualify for Phase 1B and 1B+ but was not sure what percentage have been fully vaccinated.
He said some good news is the majority of residents 60 years and up, which is the demographic with the highest risk of death from COVID-19, has gotten at least one dose of vaccine, and the county’s weekly allocation of vaccine from the state has steadily risen.
Kelley said Gallatin County had at least 3,000 doses in the fridge at the start of this week. That does not include the shipments through the federal pharmacy program to vaccinate school staff and childcare workers.
But demand to get vaccinated in Gallatin County still outpaces supply.
“We have been in a bit of a different situation in Gallatin County than some other counties in that the demand seems higher and our clinics are filling up lickity split when we make slots available. I’m aware that some other counties have some open slots at this point in time," Kelley said.
That’s been the case for the state’s most populated county, which announced Tuesday that Yellowstone County residents aged 16 and older are now eligible for a vaccine.
“We noticed yesterday that the sign ups were going a little slow and this morning we still had over 1,000 slots left for this week. The most important thing is to get the vaccine into arms. So we worked with our state partners to get the OK and open it up," Health Officer John Felton said.
Yellowstone County residents can sign up for an appointment online at mtreadyclinic.org.
Felton said about 70% of the available slots this week filled up in a four hour window on Tuesday after expanding eligibility.
“Right now I think it’s really important for people to remember that we still have a long ways to go to the point that we will substantially reduce the spread of virus in the community," Felton said.
Felton said between 70% and 85% of Yellowstone County’s population need to be immunized to keep communities safe. Right now, it’s around 25%.
Missoula County Health Officer Ellen Leahy last week said demand from the Phase 1B+ group had also been slowing down and that the county and its partners will be ready for Apr. 1. She said the state’s decision to expand vaccine eligibility cuts down on confusion.
"We know that the most vulnerable folks have had a lot of time to get the vaccine. I’m not saying everyone has done it or that some people didn’t have some difficulty doing it," Leahy said.
Leahy said Missoula County’s vaccination coordination team, which includes over two dozen registered vaccinators, has the infrastructure in place to administer a lot of shots.
“If we were operating completely full bore with plenty of vaccine, just at the health department off site clinic, we could do 9,000 vaccines a week, and we're one provider," Leahy 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.
Park County Health Officer Laurel Desnick in her weekly update Friday said the Park City-County Health Department will follow the state’s new direction while prioritizing vaccinations for essential workers during the first week or two of April.
“This includes employees at the groceries, first responders, gas stations, post office, library, hospitality, clergy, tradespeople, and many more," Desnick said, adding more specific details are forthcoming.
When asked about prioritizing essential workers, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said the health department is trying to follow the governor's guidelines.
Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said a lot of occupational groups have compelling arguments as to why they should be higher up on the vaccination list. He said he’s relieved he does not have to “play referee” and that it’s better to prioritize people who are 60 years and up for getting vaccinated.
Felton and Kelley said school staff and childcare workers already have priority at federal pharmacies.
Flathead City-County Health Department Tuesday said it will expand its clinic hours in an effort to vaccinate county residents as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Health Officer Joe Russell told YPR last week there are still Flathead County residents who fall into Phases 1A, 1B and 1B+ who are waiting for a vaccine, as are a lot of teachers. A press release Tuesday said the Flathead Health Department will continue to prioritize those 60 and older and those with underlying health conditions in April.
State data show more than 160,000 Montanans, around 16% of the state’s population, have been fully vaccinated.
Public health experts say people need to continue wearing masks in public places, washing hands, avoiding crowds and staying home when sick until the majority of people have immunity from COVID-19.