At 9:30 a.m., the lobby of the trade building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds was filled with local veterans getting screened before receiving their first dose of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Inside, veterans sat in spaced-out chairs, waiting for their number to be called for one of the vaccination stations.
“I feel relieved, absolutely relieved,” John Tuft, one of the first veterans to get his shot on Wednesday morning, said. “I was just waiting and waiting and waiting and finally they called, said I was scheduled, and I felt relief.”
The event was the second rural vaccination event held by the Montana Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System, which was selected to be the lead on a national pilot program aimed at bringing an increased number of vaccines to veterans in rural areas.
The pilot program utilizes fixed-wing aircraft to quickly transport vaccines from one of three Montana VA storage locations to remote parts of the state. The first vaccination event was held Jan. 21 in Havre, where 240 veterans received their first doses.
The Kalispell VA Clinic serves nearly 5,000 veterans from Seeley Lake to Eureka to Canada to Northern Idaho. This vast service area led to its selection as the second site for the pilot program, according to Montana VA Executive Director Judy Hayman.
“Veterans in Kalispell have been calling to find out when they will have their first opportunity to get the vaccine and we are excited to be able to bring it to area veterans,” Hayman said. “This will be our largest veteran vaccine clinic yet and our team will celebrate with each veteran who is able to move one step closer to being safe from the pandemic’s impacts.”
Hayman said the allocation for Kalispell was increased by 30% in the days leading up to the clinic, enabling an additional 100 veterans to be scheduled for the event. Eligible veterans were contacted based on age and assessed risk criteria due to certain medical conditions.
“Right now our experience has been that just over half of veterans, at least on our initial calls, want to receive the vaccine,” Hayman said. “We’re hoping as we vaccinate more veterans they will change their mind, because the more of us that get vaccinated, the better.”
The 404 veterans scheduled to receive a vaccine on Wednesday included three Purple Heart recipients and six female veterans, and had an average age of 80.
Hayman also announced that the regional VA network would receive between three and four times the previously anticipated allotment of doses for all future events.
“With our increased allocation, we’re looking at expanding the criteria, down to ages 65 and up,” Hayman said, while noting that even with increased numbers she was unsure how long it would take for all veterans who want a vaccine to get one.
Veterans who received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine will return for their second dose in about four weeks.
At the conclusion of the vaccination clinic, Montana VA will have distributed first doses of the Moderna vaccine to more than 2,000 veterans statewide out of an estimated 47,000 veterans the VA serves in Montana.
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