County Vaccination, Moderna Vaccine

Jen Krum, a registered nurse and owner of Qualicare, injects Ann Tweson, a registered nurse with the Orthopedic Surgical Center of Montana, with a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2020, at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. Krum says she decided to volunteer her time, helping the county vaccinate frontline workers because, “anyone who wants it should have access as timely as possible.”

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As Gallatin County moves toward completing the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations for frontline health care workers, plans for distributing the vaccine to much larger groups of people are underway.

Earlier this week, a change to the state’s vaccine priority list expanded the number of people in the next phase from 90,000 to about 250,000, according to Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley. It also moved people over 70 and those ages 16 to 69 with compromising health conditions ahead of essential workers like teachers or grocery store workers, and those living in group settings.

Prioritizing who gets vaccinated when will involve pros and cons no matter the decision, Kelley said.

“We don’t have enough vaccine to go around and all these decisions that we’re making have tradeoffs,” Kelley said during a press conference Friday. “So what we’re going to be doing is working within the parameters that the governor has laid out, and we’re looking at ways ... within the scope of that system to be able to make decisions for our community and get vaccines to people who will most benefit.”

The county began vaccinating health care workers at the fairgrounds this week, and Kelley said the county expects to finish administering first-round doses out to those within the 1A group by the end of next week.

Employees and residents of long-term care facilities are also eligible for the vaccine in the first group.

Kelley said they are preparing for when the state will move into the next phase of vaccinations. The county will likely work with health care providers to notify their patients who fall into the next phase that they are eligible for a vaccine, he said.

“As we do that … we have to keep in mind that there are some people who are operating outside of that system,” Kelley said. “So that we’re making sure that as we work with health care providers that are in our community, that we’re continuing to think through who we’re missing that way, and making sure ... we’re doing outreach to accommodate them.”

The county is working with a diverse group to plan for future vaccine distribution phases, county emergency management chief Patrick Lonergan said. They are working to determine who in that phase is the most vulnerable, and how to reach out to them and coordinate vaccinations.

“We can’t do them all at once,” Lonergan said.

Reaching health care workers in the first phase was eased slightly because those eligible worked within health systems or with other health care providers, Kelley said.

Bozeman Health spokesperson Lauren Brendel said the vaccine has been made available to every employee within the health system. Just over 2,100 first-round doses have been administered so far, with 250 of those going to first responders.

An immunization task force used state and federal guidance to prioritize which employees would get the vaccine first, Brendel said. It separated them into five waves based on how likely they were to come into contact with COVID-19 patients, from those who give direct and regular care to those with COVID-19 to those who may have encounters with those patients, but were unlikely to.

Other health care systems in the region followed a similar prioritization process. Livingston HealthCare CEO Deb Anczak said they received hundreds of vaccine doses and administered them to their employees, and worked with Park County to vaccinate other healthcare workers in the county.

Community Health Partners spokesperson Buck Taylor said they received 200 doses, and vaccinated forward-facing staff, like clinicians and those working in their dental operation.

Like other health care providers, Community Health Partners is preparing to administer the vaccine to patients and the general public in future phases, though Taylor said they do not know any details yet.

Kelley said they are counting on providers being able to help administer some vaccinations.

The county is focused on planning for the 1b phase now, Kelley said, but they expect employers and trade groups to be important partners in future phases that include essential workers like teachers or grocery store employees.

The plan, Kelley said, is frequently changing.

“What I’m hearing from the state is that there’s a recognition that the counties are different, we have different populations, we have different population mixes,” he said. “So they’re going to give us some flexibility in how we do that within the context of the priority groups that the state has laid out.”

Kelley emphasized that the process will be long and complicated.

There isn’t enough of the vaccine to go around now, he said, but they are working to build the system so when the county does have more doses, they can get them out efficiently.

“We are going to work hard to get it to the people who are most vulnerable, probably starting with the higher age groups and people who have really significant health conditions,” Kelley said. “But it’s going to be challenging, and I know it’s going to be at times contentious and probably frustrating for people.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.