Health Department Receiving Deluge of Phone Calls with First COVID-19 Vaccine Clinics on Tap

Clinic at Flathead County Fairgrounds held today; second clinic possible on Jan. 21 as eligible residents are inoculated by appointment only

By Andy Viano
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered at Heritage Place nursing home in Kalispell on Jan. 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The three employees responding to the Flathead City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline have been buried by more than a thousand calls per day from a community hungry for limited doses, while much of the rest of the department staff prepares to host its first immunization clinics this week.

For the staff at the county health department, the now 10 months since the novel coronavirus arrived in Flathead County have been chaotic and tumultuous, and as a distant finish line comes into view, beleaguered public health workers have transitioned from frenzied efforts to identify and trace outbreaks to managing a quickly evolving plan to distribute doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the most vulnerable members of the community as efficiently as possible. That effort reaches a significant milestone this week when the county will hold its first (and possibly second) immunization clinic at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

On Tuesday, 120 Flathead County residents were scheduled to receive their first doses of the two-round vaccine, and Health Officer Joe Russell said on Jan. 15 that he expects several hundred more doses to arrive later this week, making it possible the county could hold another clinic at the fairgrounds on Jan. 21.

All inoculations are by appointment only, and those appointments can be made by calling the health department’s dedicated vaccine hotline at (406) 751-8119. Because of the enormous call volume, the department says callers should leave a voicemail with their name, date of birth and phone number, and wait for a call back. Appointments can also be requested through an online form at flatheadhealth.org/covid-19-vaccine and are being set on a first-come, first-served basis.

Residents identified in Tier 1A and Tier 1B are currently eligible for the vaccine. Those in 1A have been eligible since December and include frontline healthcare workers, residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities, and healthcare workers with direct patient exposure. Tier 1B consists of anyone age 70 and above, Native Americans and people of color, and those ages 16 to 69 with one of several qualifying health conditions. The county health department’s website includes the full list of eligible conditions and a vaccine tier-screening tool for those unsure whether or not they qualify at this time.

North Valley Hospital in Whitefish is also planning vaccination clinics for Tier 1B in the coming weeks, although those plans have not been finalized, according to spokeswoman Riley Polumbus. North Valley is completing second doses for Tier 1A recipients this week in Whitefish and at a clinic in Eureka.

The state expects to receive regular weekly supplies of vaccine in the coming weeks, with those doses then divvied up among county health departments who will, in turn, schedule additional clinics. Russell estimated as many as 25,000 Flathead County residents could qualify under Tier 1B. The county is working in conjunction with Logan Health to conduct the clinics, and Russell said the team could administer between 100 and 120 doses per hour if and when supplies are available to move that quickly. Because the amount of supply and timing of delivery are unknown, the department will be scheduling appointments on a week-by-week basis.

As for the constantly ringing phone lines at the health department office in downtown Kalispell, Russell understands the public demand but urged residents to be patient, both in receiving a return call and getting an appointment scheduled, since so much about the situation still fluid. In a press release, he cautioned that it could be “several weeks” before callers are scheduled for a vaccine appointment.

“We are excited to move into Tier 1B vaccinations and we have all hands on deck to distribute vaccine as efficiently as possible,” he said in the press release. “With that being said, our phone systems are being inundated with calls and we are unable to accommodate the current call volume … We ask the public for their continued patience with our staff as we work to schedule and vaccinate this large vulnerable population.”

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