Flathead County residents continue to request the COVID-19 vaccine in high numbers, a promising trend in the county’s push toward herd immunity but a reality that has left those itching to get an appointment still facing wait times of several weeks.
Last week, President Joe Biden said every American would be eligible to receive the vaccine by May 1 and expressed confidence that the country would return to pre-COVID normalcy by the Fourth of July. Biden notably did not say Americans would be vaccinated by May 1, and in Flathead County it’s likely going to be long past May 1 before everyone who wants the vaccine can get it.
Health Officer Joe Russell says a continued surge in demand is still outpacing how quickly the Flathead City-County Health Department (FCCHD) can administer doses, with at least 10,000 people requesting the vaccine in the week since the state expanded eligibility through a newly created Tier 1B+. The FCCHD will be booking first appointments in Tier 1B+ through at least the next four weeks, putting the earliest possible date the county would begin vaccinating in Tier 1C at April 12, and another several weeks before Tier 2, at which point everyone in the county would be eligible.
“I’m just grateful we have people that want to be vaccinated so we can get to some sort of herd immunity,” Russell said. “We have a lot of people out there that want this vaccine and I’m grateful that we’re able to do something about it.”
Through March 7, Flathead County had fully immunized more than 8,000 people, and another 13,000-plus were halfway through the two-shot regimen. The county continues to hold clinics Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Flathead County Fairgrounds by appointment only, and North Valley Hospital in Whitefish is holding clinics on Thursdays at Grouse Mountain Lodge. Appointments in both Kalispell and Whitefish can be made online at flatheadhealth.org/covid-19-vaccine or by calling (406) 751-8119 and leaving a message.
Since Gov. Greg Gianforte created Tier 1B+ in early March, lowering the minimum age for a healthy person to be vaccinated from 70 to 60, the county health department has scheduled more than 4,000 of those who requested appointments, with the rest still waiting for their slot. And Russell said some people in Tier 1B — those most susceptible to serious COVID-19 complications — are still calling to schedule their first appointments as well.
“We’re getting a lot of traditional 1B continuing to sign up,” Russell said. “I’ve heard it at the clinic as ‘I didn’t sign up because I thought it was more important for someone else.’”
In order for Flathead County to reach so-called herd immunity — the point where enough people have COVID-19 antibodies either through vaccination or a previous bout with the virus that it cannot easily spread through a community — the most conservative estimates say at least 60% of people would need to possess those antibodies (the most aggressive estimates put the number closer to 95%). Right now, with more than 11,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the 8,000-plus fully immunized, Flathead is less than halfway to the conservative number.
At least to this point, however, the total number of vaccinated individuals does not include anyone who’s received a dose from a local pharmacy via the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. That effort, which was first widely publicized last week, allows school staff to receive the vaccine in Montana for the first time, and appointments at participating pharmacies have predictably been filling quickly. Russell, who has had limited communication with those partner pharmacies, did say he believed they were being “inundated” with requests from teachers and other essential workers. To find a vaccine appointment through the federal program, visit vaccinefinder.org.
How many people that program is able to reach could have a major impact on how quickly Flathead County hits its herd immunity threshold. Russell estimated that Tier 1C could include up to 25,000 people, since it broadly includes “frontline essential workers,” but if a large chunk of that 25,000 get shots through the federal program, the county could race through Tier 1C and get the rest of the community vaccinated more quickly.
Help in quickly vaccinating more people could possibly come from the federal government, but as of Friday the FCCHD was still waiting on funding from a bill passed in December and was likely months away from seeing any money from the American Rescue Plan signed into law last week. Money from the first federal stimulus, the CARES Act, ran out at the end of last year, and Russell said his department has not received additional funds since then. An influx is needed, Russell said, to maintain staffing levels at vaccination clinics, which includes both health department employees and staff on loan from Kalispell Regional Healthcare.
The most recent stimulus specifically allocates funds for a national vaccination program, expands testing, including rapid testing, and pledges to pay for thousands of new public health workers. That money is far from reaching the county level, however, and Gov. Gianforte on Friday said he didn’t expect specific rules on how to distribute the money for “months.” The eventual responsibility for allocating that federal funding also lies with the state Legislature, which is currently in the midst of a frenetic legislative session.
“We’re working on borrowed money here but (KRH) is too,” Russell said. “We need an infusion of money to keep these clinics going. They’re expensive. We get the ancillary kits and the vaccines for free, but labor is a pretty significant portion of what we do.”
The other major bit of COVID-19 news in recent weeks was the authorization of a one-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson in late February. Several hundred doses of that vaccine have reached Flathead County, although FCCHD had only administered around 70 as of last week. When eligible residents request a vaccine appointment online, they are asked their preference between the one-dose Johnson & Johnson and two-dose Pfizer vaccines, and a vast majority, Russell said, have requested Pfizer.
FCCHD has allocated some of its Johnson & Johnson doses to Sykes Pharmacy, which is a state partner in vaccine distribution, and sent other doses to North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, which is running its own clinics. Much of the rest, Russell says, is being reserved for “special population use” — those who may be homebound or have difficulty getting to the fairgrounds for a shot on two separate occasions.
Fifteen new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Flathead County on Friday and an estimated 100-plus cases are still active. Eighty-two people have died from COVID-19 related sickness in Flathead County in the last year.
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