COVID-19

Vaccine Eligibility Opens Up April 1; County to Expand Clinic Hours

All Montanans age 16 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines on April 1; County plans to expand vaccine clinic hours

By Micah Drew
Catherine Sandholdt, a certified nursing assistant for Heritage Place nursing home in Kalispell, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Andrea Shearin, a pharmacist intern from CVS on Jan. 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“As Montanans, we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said during a press conference on March 31 to give an update on the status of the state’s pandemic response. “Tomorrow, I’ll get one of these safe and effective vaccines right here in Lewis and Clark County.”

Gianforte said that since he is not yet 60, he did not think it was fair for him to jump ahead in line to get his vaccine, instead opting to wait until his “name came up.” After moving up the timeline for all Montanans age 16 and older to received COVID-19 vaccines, Gianforte is among those whose names are finally up.

The governor offered an end-of-the-month look at the state’s vaccine status, reporting that more than 231,000 vaccines were administered statewide in March, bringing the statewide total close to 500,000. The average daily caseload statewide continues to decline, down 43% from the February average.

Montana is slated to get 41,000 first doses of vaccine from the three authorized providers — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — this week in addition to 25,000 second doses, which is 15,000 more than the state received last week.

In Flathead County, 13,204 residents are fully immunized while an additional 7,475 have received one dose.

With the expanded eligibility, Health Officer Joe Russell said the health department will be operating its vaccine clinic with expanded hours, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. The expanded hours will add about 130-140 additional doses, bringing the clinic’s ability to give around 1,000 doses a day.

“That’s about the best we can do,” Russell said. “We’re also going to be working with partners to vaccinate homebound individuals and special partners.”

According to Russell, it costs around $12,000 a day to put on a vaccination clinic, a cost which could be partially covered by funds allocated to the county in the latest federal COVID-relief package.

The county is currently fully booked for vaccination appointments through the week of April 12. Individuals who want a vaccine can sign up through the health department’s website.

Russell did say that while all adult Montanans are now eligible, the health department plans to continue prioritizing some occupations.

“We believe the two highest risk occupations right now are educators, who are captive all day, and restaurant, tavern and grocery workers,” Russell said. “We’re going to keep people in tiers for a little bit, then shift to first come, first served.”

Anyone who wants a vaccine can also get one through a partner pharmacy. Currently in the Flathead Valley, Albertsons, Walmart, Walgreens, Safeway and Sykes Pharmacy are administering vaccines under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. To find a participating pharmacy and make an appointment, visit vaccinefinder.org or schedule an appointment directly through a pharmacy’s website.

The pharmacy programs have been instrumental in offsetting the demand for vaccinations from the county according to Russell, who noted that 60-70 percent of educational staff have been served by pharmacies since that group became an eligible population.

“At the clip we’re going, we could double what we’ve done in two months,” Russell said, adding that he would still like to see another organization open up a vaccine clinic.

The governor will receive his vaccine from a pharmacy in Helena on Thursday morning.

“You’ve heard me say it before: our trend lines remain encouraging,” Gianforte said, also confirming that he would continue to follow CDC guidelines, such as masking in public areas, going forward. “I encourage Montanans to get theirs now that we’re opening it up statewide.”

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