Montana officials discuss statewide vaccine plan with panel

HELENA — State officials said they are looking at a three-phased approach to provide vaccinations in Montana that includes getting the much-expected COVID-19 vaccines to frontline health care and other health care workers, high-risk populations and eventually to members of the general public who want it.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services on Tuesday had the first meeting of a COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Coordination Team comprised of more than 60 people from key groups statewide.

Plans are to ship the vaccines directly to the areas where they will be distributed.
Pfizer recently asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to begin distributing its vaccine, and Moderna is expected to do the same shortly, the Associated Press reported. Federal officials say the first doses will ship within a day of authorization.

But most people will probably have to wait months for shots to become widely available, the Associated Press reported. Both vaccines also each require two doses, meaning people will have to go back for a second shot after three and four weeks to get full protection.

Some news reports say the vaccines could be available as early as mid-December.

Bekki Wehner, head of the DPHHS Communicable Disease Control and Emergency Preparedness Bureau, said the state does not know at this point as to how many doses of the vaccine it will receive.

“We don’t really have a great sense right now how much vaccine is going to come in that first round, so that is an important piece,” she said, adding hopefully the state will know more in the next couple weeks.

Wehner said it is important to remember that the vaccine will come in several waves.

She estimated there are 45,000-60,00 health care workers in the state.

“We need to remember at this point that everybody needs two doses of vaccine,” she said, adding the state would need roughly about 100,000 doses.

The team includes representatives from health systems and hospitals, local county health departments, tribal governments, long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, emergency management services, rural health clinics, pharmacies, business and occupational health organizations, peoples with disabilities, educational agencies and providers, religious leaders, organizations serving racial and ethnic minorities and people with limited English proficiency, and community representatives, state officials said.

Wehner said plans are to ship the vaccines directly to the areas where they will be distributed. She said the vaccine has some really strict storage and handling requirements so it would be best to be shipped directly to the place vaccinating.

She said the department would not be acting as a depot.

Wehner said there will be challenges in getting the vaccines into the state. She said the the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at minus-70 or minus-80 degrees Celsius. She said the minimum order is 975 doses.

She said places receiving the vaccine need to be prepared to store appropriately and to vaccinate a large amount of people in a short amount of time. She said the Pfizer vaccine will come in a thermal container that can maintain the proper temperature for about 10 days.

Wehner said Montana has a “nice number” of health systems sites that can have ultra-cold storage and handle the vaccines. She said the Moderna vaccine, which is also expected soon, comes in a minimum dose of 100 and will be easier to store.

She said Montana has about seven ultra-cold storage sites geographically around the state and nicely spread.

Wehner also discussed how to get the vaccines in rural areas. She said efforts are being made to see what facilities can administer a vaccine and how many people in that area can be vaccinated.

Pfizer said Wednesday that new test results show its coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective, Moderna Inc. also announced similar effectiveness of its own COVID-19 vaccine candidate, the Associated Press reported,

In other COVID-19 news, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling on them to ensure Montanans across the state, including those in rural communities, get access to an effective COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible,

“As states across the country work to develop their vaccine distribution plans in consultation with the federal government, I encourage the CDC to consider the unique challenges facing those in remote and rural communities in Montana and across the nation who may have difficulty accessing vaccination services,” he wrote.

Also on Tuesday, Governor-elect Greg Gianforte’s COVID-19 task force met as well.

It will work with state and local health officials to provide recommendations to Gianforte on dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. The panel consists of health care experts, business leaders, school administrators, law enforcement and local and tribal leaders.