Flathead County Health Department Designing Plan to Distribute COVID-19 Vaccine

Health officer aiming for 70% of community to be immunized by middle of next year, says mandatory vaccination will not be imposed

By Andy Viano
Jill Boll prepares a flu vaccination at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Oct. 7, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The newly appointed Flathead City-County health officer hopes to immunize 70% of the county with a COVID-19 vaccine by the middle of 2021, a conservative target that he believes would be enough to protect the community from the deadly pandemic.

At the Flathead City-County Board of Health’s monthly meeting on Dec. 17, Health Officer Joe Russell said his department believes it will primarily receive doses of the just-approved Moderna vaccine and he added that the first several hundred of those doses were scheduled to arrive in the county this week. The health department, the Flathead Community Health Center and North Valley Hospital in Whitefish will receive those doses, which will likely be allocated to healthcare workers and other frontline personnel who did not receive the Pfizer vaccine distributed to Kalispell Regional Healthcare (KRH) last week.

As for the general public, mass doses of the vaccine are likely not going to be available until the early spring, with Russell saying large vaccination clinics would likely not be established until late March at the earliest. Russell has been part of a mass vaccine rollout before — both during the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 and the department’s annual flu clinic — but both pale in comparison to the lift that will be necessary to immunize from COVID-19.

This October’s flu clinic at the Flathead County Fairgrounds was billed as a possible simulation of the COVID vaccine rollout but Russell says recreating that event is unrealistic, particularly because of the challenges of tearing down and setting up the operation every day. That clinic was held outdoors and deployed 1,200 doses of the influenza vaccine, still a far cry from the tens of thousands who would need to be injected in order for the community to hit that 70% threshold.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Russell said in an interview with the Beacon earlier this month. “We had six lines of cars (at the flu clinic), sometimes 10 to 12 deep, to get to 1,200 vaccines.”

Using those numbers and accounting for the 10,000 or so county residents who will have contracted COVID-19 before the vaccine is available, it would take roughly 50 flu-clinic size events for Flathead County to hit 70,000 vaccinated or previously infected residents (about 70% of the population), and that’s only for the first of two doses that need to be administered one month apart. That’s a huge task for a department already dealing with widespread staff turnover and that still has to perform other, non-COVID related functions. Russell said he’s considering imposing a four-hour shift limit on vaccinators to “prevent burnout” during what will be a very busy vaccine deployment.

“It takes more than the entire staff,” Russell said of the manpower needed. “Our environmental health people are doing logistics, our nurses are giving shots, all of our front-end people are doing registration … That’s what it’s going to take, every time, 50 times.”

The other major obstacle is finding a venue for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. Russell said he has already communicated with some properties that could accommodate safe social distancing and not require teardown nightly but that no venue has been secured.

The good news for Russell is that the weeks if not months before the vaccine is available in large quantities gives he and his staff time to strategize and come up with ways to administer more shots to more people. Staff will be able to at least skip one step in the registration process since the vaccinations will not be billed, but even that could only make a modest difference.

“That’s going to be my challenge to the staff. You tell me how we can do this better,” Russell said. “We can go faster, but how much faster? Fifty percent faster, meaning we can do 1,500 (a day)?”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18. It is the second COVID-19 vaccine to receive emergency use authorization and, unlike its predecessor, does not need to be stored at extreme low temperatures. According to information distributed by the FDA, Moderna doses must be stored at between minus 13 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The health department has a freezer available to accommodate those temperatures and KRH has an ultra-cold freezer that can safely store the Pfizer vaccine at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to the latest available data, 8,897 Flathead County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since March and 51 residents have died as a result of the virus. Russell said no Flathead County residents, including healthcare workers, would be mandated to receive the vaccine.


Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.