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County adjusting COVID vaccination plan due to state changes, supply delays
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County adjusting COVID vaccination plan due to state changes, supply delays

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Lewis and Clark Public Health is adjusting its COVID-19 vaccine rollout effort due to sweeping changes to the state's plan and a delivery schedule proving more sluggish than what was promised.

County health officials intend to keep the public abreast of changes to the plan via a new "COVID-19 Hub" found on the health department's website, www.lccountymt.gov/health.html. The hub will eventually track data such as doses administered and doses received as well as provide detailed information regarding forthcoming vaccination phases.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he would adjust Phase 1B of the state's vaccination plan to include those ages 70 and older and people ages 16-69 with specific health conditions. This phase still includes Native Americans, but no longer includes essential workers and teachers or those in congregate care and corrections facilities, unless they have specific health conditions.

As a result, the number of county residents expected to receive the vaccine during Phase 1B dropped from about 23,000 to about 13,000.

"Our local vaccine administration process is highly adaptable and can readily accommodate any priority population," the health department's disease control and prevention division administrator Eric Merchant said in an email, adding that communication "will be the key" in effectively vaccinating the local population with revisions occurring to the phases and schedule.

"We just hope there is consistency at this point, so we can move forward with a plan," Merchant said.

The health department estimates about 2,700 initial doses of the two-dose vaccine have been administered to those who qualified for Phase 1A of the vaccination plan, mostly medical professionals.

Some "leakage" did occur during the initial phase, Merchant said during the department's weekly briefing Friday morning, meaning some who were not eligible to receive the vaccine in the initial phase did. However, he did not provide a specific number of people who cut in line.

"We believe most Phase 1A eligible individuals, whom are willing to be vaccinated, have been vaccinated," Merchant said in an email. "However, we will continue to vaccinate any remaining Phase 1A eligible individuals during Phase 1B and beyond."

Local health officials anticipated beginning the county's next round of vaccinations as early as this week, but the shift in the state's plan and a delay in vaccine delivery has pushed that back to Jan. 18.

"We will attempt to administer all of those doses received during that same week or into the following week," Merchant said of the next round, adding that health officials are "cautiously confident in vaccine supply increasing through time."

The primary location for vaccine distribution will remain the county fairgrounds, as the health department and St. Peter's Health staff, who helped administer the vaccine during the initial phase, felt that location and drive-thru method was efficient.

With prioritizing the elderly population, 70 or older in Phase 1B, comes a unique set of challenges, particularly a lack of transportation. Merchant said the local vaccine task force is preparing a mobile vaccination unit to better serve such individuals.

The first round of vaccination relied on individuals providing a photo ID and proof of eligibility. Local health officials are considering implementing an "event-specific registration process" for future rounds.

As both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are required to be administered in two doses, the county and state health departments handed out vaccine record cards to everyone who received an initial dose. Those cards will identify those eligible for a second dose.

The different COVID-19 vaccines cannot be mixed. Anyone vaccinated with Moderna's vaccine must receive the Moderna vaccine as the second dose.

Those who participated in the county's Phase 1A event, which occurred Dec. 29 and 30, received the Moderna vaccine. Merchant said a second event at the fairgrounds is scheduled for Jan. 26 and 27 for that first group to receive its second dose.

Anyone who lost the vaccine record card can be identified by event staff through a statewide database called ImMTrax.

Pharmacies such as CVS have been federally contracted to administer vaccines to long-term care facility staff and residents. That effort is separate from the county's state allocation.

The county's colossal vaccination effort rolls on at a time when COVID-19 numbers once again are spiking in Helena. According to data from Carol College's wastewater testing, the city's wastewater shows more than 50,000 genomic copies of the virus per liter, more than double the amount from the week prior.

"There's going to be a lot going on here before we get to a safe place," Merchant said during Friday's briefing. "Please, folks, do these things that we've learned work (wearing face masks in public, keeping socially distanced, washing hands and staying home when sick). ... Just because we have a vaccine doesn't mean it's in enough people yet."

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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