Vaccine Availability Expanding in Northwest Montana

Federal partnership with participating pharmacies includes opportunity for educators to be vaccinated in region for first time

By Andy Viano
Staff prepare COVID-19 vaccines for veterans at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 3, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

More Northwest Montana residents will soon have access to a COVID-19 vaccine, including teachers and school staff, a development made possible by a federal program that distributes doses through private pharmacy partners.

Sen. Jon Tester revealed Friday afternoon that all Montana educators were immediately eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which had sent more than 9,000 doses to Montana pharmacies. In the Flathead Valley, some pharmacy locations had received limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines before Friday’s announcement and had already begun immunizing educators who were able to learn of the program. Participating pharmacies are currently scheduling vaccine appointments for teachers and staff in K-12 schools and childcare programs.

In Northwest Montana, Albertsons, Walmart, Walgreens, Safeway and Sykes Pharmacy are among those included in the program. To find a participating pharmacy and make an appointment, visit vaccinefinder.org or schedule an appointment directly through a participating pharmacy’s website.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden gave an address from the White House and pushed for teachers to be vaccinated, saying he was going to be “using the full authority of the federal government” to direct states to immediately begin inoculating school staff. More than half of the states in the country were already including educators in their vaccine programs at that time, although Montana was not and is not one of those states.

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell has long pushed for teachers to be vaccinated and has expressed disappointment at Gov. Greg Gianforte’s decision to twice push back eligibility for teachers, once when he moved them from Tier 1B to Tier 1C in January, and again this week when he announced the creation of Tier 1B+. That move lowered the minimum age to qualify for a vaccine to 60, opening up the vaccine to an estimated 13,000 new residents in Flathead County.

As of March 4, Russell said more than 1,700 of those newly eligible people had registered for vaccine appointments beginning next week and he expected that number to climb significantly in the coming days. The Flathead City-County Health Department continues to recommend that those eligible for the vaccine schedule an appointment online at flatheadhealth.org/covid-19-vaccine. Appointments can also be made by calling (406) 751-8119 and leaving a message.

As of March 5, teachers are not eligible to receive the vaccine through the county health department but Russell welcomed the opportunity for educators to be immunized via the pharmacy program.

“If a teacher can get scheduled through (the pharmacy), good on them,” Russell said. “If they can do every teacher in Flathead County in the next two weeks, to get their doses in them, if they can do that more power to them.”

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Resources spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the pharmacies statewide had received 9,210 vaccine doses via the federal pharmacy program as of Feb. 28. Once doses are administered, they will be reported to the state and be accounted for on the state’s COVID-19 tracker, however at this time the county’s data will not include doses administered by the private pharmacies. Previous federal programs have also supplied vaccine doses in the state, including for long-term care facilities, veterans and some Indian Health Service locations.

The county, meanwhile, is continuing to administer vaccine doses at its clinics at the Flathead County Fairgrounds, typically on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week. Vaccinations are done by appointment only. As of March 5, the county had administered 17,979 total doses and 11,872 people were fully immunized.

With nearly 12,000 Flathead County residents vaccinated and another 11,000-plus possessing antibodies because they previously tested positive for the virus, a significant number of county residents now have some level of immunity. Russell estimated that number to be at least 30% of residents, taking into account the likely thousands of people who were either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic carriers of the virus and never tested.

Nonetheless, Russell continues to recommend residents remain vigilant in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks, regularly washing your hands and avoiding crowded indoor spaces. Several variants of COVID-19 are believed to be circulating in the United States and one of those variants was discovered in Gallatin County earlier this week. Russell expressed little concern that the variants would be more resistant to the vaccine, but those variants are also believed to be more infectious and therefore have the ability to spread more quickly.

As of Friday, 11,107 Flathead County residents had been infected with COVID-19. Eighty-one of those people have died.