Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell said he expects the county health department to distribute 1,170 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine every week as the county continues chipping away at an overwhelming demand for inoculations.
Russell added that the department’s COVID-19 hotline is still receiving around 1,000 phone calls per day from residents hoping to schedule an appointment, and that hundreds more requests are coming in through an online form. He told members of the Flathead City-County Board of Health on Thursday that the waiting list for an appointment was around 8,000 people.
The vaccine is being distributed by appointment only and appointments can be made by visiting https://flatheadhealth.org/covid-19-vaccine or calling (406) 751-8119.
For those who have already received at least one dose of the vaccine — more than 4,300 people as of Jan. 22 — Russell said the reaction to receiving the shot has sometimes been emotional.
“Literally, people cried when they were getting their shots,” Russell said. “They were elated. People cry they are so happy.”
Vaccines are currently available only for those in Tier 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution recommendations. Those include all residents age 70 and over, Native Americans and other people of color, and those with high-risk preexisting medical conditions. A full breakdown of each tier is available at https://dphhs.mt.gov/Portals/85/publichealth/documents/HAN/2021/HANUD2021-1.pdf.
Russell expected there to be a “high uptake” of the vaccine among those in Tier 1B, meaning a large percentage of people in that population will be interested in receiving it. He estimated that could mean between 20,000 and 25,000 people, a number that would take months to fully immunize assuming the county procures around 1,200 first doses per week. Those 1,200 doses do not include second doses that would be supplied and utilized three to four weeks after the first dose is administered.
Once all interested residents in Tier 1B are vaccinated, the county would move to Tier 1C, which includes all people 60 and older, along with frontline essential workers (including teachers), individuals in congregate care settings, and those with other preexisting medical conditions.
During Thursday’s meeting, Russell was asked about how public-facing workers and companies should prepare for the upcoming summer tourist season. Board member and Kalispell City Councilor Kyle Waterman posed the question and said outfitters and other concerned business owners had contacted him, worried that their employees, including many from out of state, could have trouble getting vaccinated. Russell, who said he had been contacted by Glacier National Park with a similar concern, admitted it was a difficult problem to solve. Even if those workers were classified in Tier 1C, it could be well into the tourist season before they would be fully immunized with two doses of the vaccine.
“I’m challenged with this,” Russell said. “I’ve had people say how are you going to take care of my workers from all over the country, and I almost want to say ‘why don’t you get those workers vaccinated before they get in.’”
Russell also shared that the county will be relying on the Pfizer version of the vaccine in the immediate future after the first round of subjects were immunized with a vaccine produced by drug maker Moderna. Both vaccines have an efficacy of around 95% but Pfizer’s must be stored at extreme cold temperatures. Flathead County is able to accommodate those temperatures using ultra-cold storage provided by Kalispell Regional Healthcare.
The board also appointed a new chairperson and vice chair at Thursday’s meeting, appointing Roger Noble as chairman and Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist as vice chair. Outgoing chairman Bill Burg was nominated for vice chair but declined the nomination and added he was “delighted” at Noble’s appointment. Burg’s three-year term on the board is slated to expire at the end of this year. Noble was just reappointed to a three-year term last month.
The board met in person for the first time in several months on Thursday, with seven of the nine board members gathering, albeit at a safe distance from each other (the other two joined remotely). The board met Wednesday night to create a policy for in-person meetings, requiring the public wear face coverings if they attend in person unless they are “claiming a condition” that would exempt them from such a policy.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.