GREAT FALLS — As the number of positive COVID cases grows and more deaths are reported, hope for an approved vaccine grows stronger. On Monday, the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services announced a statewide team that will help answer some questions surrounding the vaccine, and released a draft plan for the distribution process.
The COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Coordination Team, made up of Montana medical, tribal, government, and community leaders, will also give feedback as the process rolls out.
"First initial round of vaccine once it becomes available next month will be available on a limited basis to...the frontline health care workers, those at most risk for COVID and things like that. And so, for most Montanans, it won't be available until later on in 2021," said Jon Ebelt, DPHHS spokesman.
DPHHS says the vaccine will not be mandatory, and that everyone who wants to get it will be able to eventually.
Montana Immunization Program Manager Bekki Wehner stressed that this is just version one of what she expects to be several iterations of the plan. With evolving guidance coming from the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and other agencies and organizations, it’s likely that Montana’s plans to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine will have to adapt to that changing guidance.
The draft plan for Montana states that the vaccine will be distributed in three phases:
- Phase 1: Targeted Critical Workforce; Limited Supply
- First Two Months
- The federal government will release stockpiled COVID-19 vaccines in anticipation of FDA approval. CDC has not indicated how much vaccine is allocated to Montana.
- Goal: Maximize the limited supply of allocated vaccine to ensure essential response personnel and people at the highest risk of life-threatening infection receive at least the first dose within the first two months of initial distribution.
- Phase 2: Expanded Dispensing; Adequate Supply
- Three to Approximately Six Months
- The CDC will ship more vaccine doses as the FDA approves more formulations and supply increases. DPHHS will encourage providers to continue targeting critical workforce and begin to move forward with defined prioritized groups. Second dose vaccines will be among the deliveries to complete courses for critical personnel.
- Goal: Ensure access to COVID-19 vaccine for critical population members who were not vaccinated in Phase 1, provide second dosing for Phase 1 recipients, and expand availability to other prioritized groups.
- Phase 3: Expand and Normalize Distribution for Public Dispensing; Sufficient Supply
- Six Months and Beyond
- Focus for Phase 3 will shift to reaching Tier 5 populations. Vaccine producers should have manufactured enough to make it widely available. At this point, distributing and dispensing should be routine. The COVID-19 vaccine may become part of routine immunizations along with influenza and scheduled or recommended preventative injections. Projections for Phase 3 are highly dependent on event conditions and updated guidance and operational decisions from the CDC and FDA.
- Goal: Make COVID-19 vaccine ordering and dispensing a routine process for providers and ensure equitable access across the entire population.
U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday that the country could begin distributing COVID-19 vaccines as early as mid-December. In fact, his exact words were “if all goes well, we could be distributing vaccine soon after December 10.” If that’s the case, Montanans that fall under the categories listed in Phase One could begin receiving these vaccinations as early as a few days after that.
Wehner said that it’s likely the vaccine will need to be administered in two separate doses. Because of that, she estimates that the state will need between 90,000 and 100,000 doses of the vaccine just to take care of all frontline healthcare workers in Montana. It’s not known yet how many doses will be included in the first shipments to states.
It’s also not clear which vaccine the FDA will move forward with. Moderna and Pfizer have been the forefront of vaccine development in the United States recently, but the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca also recently announced some successful vaccine trials. While each vaccine has its advantages, only two of those, Moderna’s and Pfizer’s need to be stored at sub-freezing temperatures. Oxford-AstraZeneca’s can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.
That could have an impact in how facilities prepare to store the vaccine. Wehner says Montana has six or seven ultra-cold storage sites around the state to store vaccines. Despite the differences in storage temperatures, time required between each dose, and other things, Wehner doesn’t think it will have a major impact on when the vaccines can begin being administered in Montana.
“The cold storage units aren’t a critical component of vaccine allocation, they’re just a piece of the puzzle,” she explained. “So, if there are concerns that there are no ultra-cold units in a certain geography of Montana, that won’t preclude there being a vaccine allocation in that area.”
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As of mid-day on Monday, November 23rd, MTN News is reporting a cumulative total of 628 deaths in Montana due to COVID-19, an increase of seven since Sunday. There are currently 467 people hospitalized, a decrease of 10 since Sunday; there have been 2,377 total hospitalizations since the pandemic began. There were 1,192 new COVID cases reported in Montana within the last 24 hours, and there are currently 15,665 active cases. There has been a cumulative total of 56,743 cases; of those cases, 40,450 are now listed as recovered. There were 4,965 new tests within the last 24 hours, for a cumulative total of 617,974.
COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Coordination Team
- Health systems and hospitals: Heather O’Hara, Montana Hospital Association; Vicky Byrd, Montana Nurses Association; Joyce Dombrouski, Providence Montana
- Local health departments: Eric Merchant, Association of Montana Public Health Officials; Lora Wier, Montana Public Health Association
- Tribal governments: Laura Upham, Blackfeet Nation; Lauren Corcoran, Chippewa Cree Tribe; Chelsea Kleinmeyer, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; To be named, Crow Nation; Jennifer Show, Fort Belknap Tribes; Kaci Wallette, Fort Peck Tribes; Molly Wendland, Little Shell Tribe; Janet Wolfname, Northern Cheyenne Tribe; Elizabeth Williams, All Nations Health Center; Kim Brown, Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center; Todd Wilson, Helena Indian Alliance; Shannon Parker, Northern American Indian Alliance; Angela Troutt, Billings Area Indian Health Services; To be named, Indian Family Health Clinic
- Long term care facilities: Rose Hughes, Montana Health Care Association
- Correctional facilities: Cindy Hiner, Montana Department of Corrections
- Emergency Management Services: Mike Radke, Disaster and Emergency Services; KC Williams, Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services; Dale Butori, Fallon County Disaster and Emergency Services
- Rural health: Cindy Stergar, Montana Primary Care Association
- Pharmacies: Stuart Doggett and Michael Matovich, Montana Family Pharmacies
- Business and occupational health organizations: Todd O’Hair, Montana Chamber of Commerce
- Health insurance issuers and plans: Tim Wetherill, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana; Dr. Stephen Tahta, Allegiance; Richard Miltenberger, Mountain Health CO-OP; Matt Bell and Jen Hensley, PacificSource Health Plans
- Organizations serving individuals with disabilities: Bernie Franks-Ongoy, Disability Rights Montana; Scott Birkenbuel, Statewide Independent Living Council; Travis Hoffman, Summitt Independent Living; Joel Peden, Montana Independent Living Project; Deb Swingley, Montana Council on Developmental Disabilities; Patrick Maddison, Montana Association of Community Disability Services
- Educational agencies and providers: Clayton Christian, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education; Diedre Murray, Montana University System; Kirk Miller, School Administrators of Montana
- Churches and religious leaders: Kendra Wilde, Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church; Student Rabbi Erik Uriarte, Congregation Beth Aaron
- Organizations serving racial and ethnic minority groups: Kathe Quittenton, DPHHS State Refugee Coordinator; Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, Hopa Mountain; Allison Paul, Montana Legal Services Association; Judith Hielman, The Montana Racial Equity Project
- Organizations serving people with limited English proficiency: Vicki Thuesen, Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Council
- Community representatives: Eric Bryson, Montana Association of Counties; Liz Moore, Montana Non-Profit Association
- Mental health representative: Matt Kuntz, National Alliance on Mental Illness-Montana
- Behavioral health: Mary Windecker, Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana
- Adult and child congregate group homes: Matt Bugni, AWARE, Inc.
- Home health workers: Jacquie Helt, SEIU 775 Healthcare; Janessa White and Katie Spaid, Consumer Direct
- Childcare and early childhood: Meghan Ballenger, Montana Child Care Resource and Referral Network; Patty Butler, DPHHS Early Childhood and Family Services Division/Child Care Licensing
- Homeless shelters: Amy Allison Thompson, Poverello Center
- Organizations on aging: Nancy Anderson, AARP; Kris Spanjian, Big Sky 55+; Adrianne Cotton, Montana Area Agencies on Aging Association
- Unions: Emma Merle Hunter, Montana Federation of Public Employees