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Montana VA COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Outpacing Demand

Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System nurse Tina Arvish waits for a veteran to walk into a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at an American Legion conference in Helena on June 25, 2021.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System nurse Tina Arvish waits for a veteran to walk into a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at an American Legion conference in Helena on June 25, 2021.

A recent pop-up clinic intended to encourage hesitant veterans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 reflects dwindling demand for the shot in Montana.

Nurse Tina Arvish sits behind a table at a temporary COVID-19 vaccine clinic tucked away from the bustle of a recent American Legion conference in Helena.

“We have two nurses' stations where we’re able to give injections simultaneously,” Arvish says.

The Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System is trying to make the vaccine accessible for hesitant veterans who may not want to schedule a dedicated hospital visit.

“Give them a card, have them all set up and educated and away they go,” Arvish says.

But no veterans showed up for a shot during the clinic’s three-hour window.

Dr. Judy Hayman, Montana VA Health Care System director, says vaccine demand has slumped among veterans. Young veterans in particular aren’t turning out for shots, as is the case around the country.

Hayman says the agency isn’t satisfied with the number of veterans who’ve been vaccinated.

“Some people have medical conditions or religions that exclude them--everybody else should be vaccinated,” Hayman says.

Hayman says research indicating most hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated shows the urgency to get shots in arms.

“If that’s not a reason to get off the fence and get vaccinated, I don’t know what is,” Hayman says.

A federal law passed in March allows the VA to vaccinate veterans and people close to them not enrolled in the agency’s health care system. Hayman says more than 250 spouses and caregivers have been vaccinated through the program in Montana.

“Every little bit helps so we’re happy to be able to do that,” Hayman says.

But a VA spokesperson didn’t know how many unenrolled veterans have received shots following the law’s passage.

The Montana VA has vaccinated nearly 14,000 veterans overall, about 30% of those enrolled in the agency’s health care system. That number is below the statewide average of 46 percent but doesn’t include veterans who’ve been jabbed by providers outside the VA.

American Legion of Montana Commander Jeff Nelson says having a complete data set could be helpful for targeting vaccine-hesitant people.

However, he says the VA has generally done a good job of seeking out veterans willing to be vaccinated even though vaccine distribution was slower than preferred when doses were limited months ago.

“I’ve never heard any negativeness about how the VA handled the situation,” Nelson says.

The VA can’t offer free beer tokens or cash raffles in exchange for getting vaccinated, as some businesses and local governments have been doing recently. But there’s still room for some creativity.

Retired nurse and Army veteran Dan Fritz recorded “Inoculation Blues” and other original songs for the VA to raise vaccine awareness, even though he’s dealt with an extreme fear of needles since a harrowing experience with a vaccine injector gun during basic training in Colorado.

Fritz volunteered during Friday’s vaccine clinic and says getting the COVID-19 shot is a civic duty.

“We take an oath to defend our country against all enemies foreign and domestic,” Fritz says. “It’s a war that’s on our soil right now and we should treat it as one and protect our fellow citizens by getting shots ourselves.”

Todd Dunlap with the VA says his office reached out to most veterans enrolled in the health care system multiple times about getting vaccinated, resulting in 30,000 phone calls and twice as many texts.

Dunlap says a third of veterans were knocking down the agency’s doors to get a shot, a third were hesitant--

“And then the other third was people absolutely set against it."

Although the VA will continue to run vaccine clinics, Dunlap says the agency has transitioned to offering shots to veterans who may be seeing their doctor for something not related to the coronavirus.

“By transitioning to primary care, it sort of keeps us from just hounding the veteran over and over again,” Dunlap says. “In today’s environment, if there’s anybody that wants the vaccine that hasn’t got it, there’s countless paths to get it.”

Hayman, the Montana VA Health Care System director, says the agency’s national branch is preparing to mail letters encouraging unvaccinated veterans to consider getting a shot. She says there’s also national discussion to offer incentives for veterans to get vaccinated.