In part, the annual Flathead City-County Health Department flu clinic is always meant to prepare department employees, healthcare workers and local residents for the rollout of a large-scale medical treatment, a simulation that will become reality if efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine are successful.
A team of professionals from the health department, Flathead Community Health Center, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and the Flathead County Detention Center descended on the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Oct. 7 to deliver a drive-thru flu vaccine to more than 1,100 locals of all ages, with most adults receiving their dose through a rolled-down window. The daylong clinic simulates a “mass deployment event,” something the county has not had to do since 2009 when a vaccine for H1N1 virus was distributed.
The next “mass deployment event” should come in the next several months, as soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is available in Montana. Deputy Health Officer Kerry Nuckles said information the FCCHD is receiving from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services indicates a vaccine could be available here this winter, although likely not until after the first of the year.
Nuckles said the health department has regular conversations about deploying large amounts of vaccine, including the novel coronavirus, but that distributing any treatment would be a combined effort from the entire local health community. In 2009, doses of the H1N1 vaccine were administered at multiple locations in Kalispell, Whitefish and Bigfork.
“This is part of our emergency preparedness function and it’s stuff that we have ready to go all the time,” Nuckles said. “We have sites in all of the small towns throughout Flathead County.”
This winter, the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine would likely begin in long-term care facilities, and additional priority would be given to frontline healthcare workers and those with pre-existing health conditions, Nuckles said. Unfortunately, the timing of a COVID-19 vaccine could also present additional challenges, since a drive-thru clinic in freezing temperatures would be difficult.
Because the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine is probably several months out, the FCCHD is strongly recommending as many people as possible receive this year’s flu vaccine, which offers protection from the strains of influenza thought to be most likely to reach Montana. Health experts are particularly concerned about the co-occurrence of influenza and COVID-19 in a single patient, something that would be especially deadly to older populations. A rampant influenza outbreak could also lead to increased hospitalizations, further stressing the county’s capacity to treat a mounting number of COVID-19 cases requiring hospital stays.
The flu vaccine is available by appointment at the Flathead City-County Health Department by calling (406) 751-8110. Due to COVID-19, the immunization clinic is not accepting walk-in patients. The vaccine is also available at a number of local pharmacies and healthcare providers.