Montana vaccination plan calls for phased rollout, some details still in the works

MISSOULA, Mont. — Operation Warp Speed means progress on COVID-19 vaccinations is moving fast, and state officials this week unveiled a draft plan of how initial vaccination distribution might look in Montana — but there is still a lot up in the air.

The state’s vaccination plan is a draft based on a CDC playbook released in October. Part of it includes education and messaging to encourage folks to get the vaccine, which is something the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, emphasized in an exclusive NBC Montana interview Monday.

“We need to articulate what actually happens. And what happens is that an independent body called the Data and Safety Monitoring Board examines the data intimately as the trial goes on and examines it for safety as well as for efficacy,” Fauci said. “That is an independent body that is has allegiance to no one, not to the administration, not to the company. They only have allegiance to the truth.”

The rollout will be a phased approach, with the first phase likely going to critical infrastructure workers like health care personnel. Next, people at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness, like residents at long-term care facilities, people with underlying medical conditions and those over 65 years old. The next tier, according to the draft, includes tribal communities, teachers, inmates and more.

The rollout progresses to phase two and then phase three, which will look like widespread distribution, with the plan estimating that could be six months from now.

It’s unclear how many doses Montana will get in the first shipment, which vaccine we will get and when that will happen.

There are anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 people in just health care workers, and there’s no way of knowing at this moment if Montana’s first shipment will cover that.

We do know the plan calls for the vaccine to be free, with any administration fees to be covered by insurance. The state is working on a mechanism to have it covered for the uninsured.

State officials say the vaccine won’t be recommended for those under the age of 18. Because the first vaccines will be authorized under emergency use, people who get it will need to sign a consent form.

We reached out to Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte’s camp to see how this tentative plan fits into the transition. A spokesperson said, “Gov.-elect Gianforte will continue working with Governor Bullock during the transition. He recognizes we need to get a better handle on how we confront this virus, and he’s relying on his COVID-19 Task Force to help chart an effective path forward for after he takes office.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Daines sent a letter Tuesday to CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield urging the agency to consider the unique distribution challenges in states like Montana.

The Pfizer vaccine, in particular, has a few logistical challenges. It needs to be stored at -70 Celsius and comes in a minimum order of 975 doses, which aren’t ideal circumstances for rural communities.

Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to VA Sec. Robert Wilkie Monday, urging him to lay out COVID-19 vaccine strategy plans for veterans and staff.

The vaccination coordination group will meet again in December, when they hope to have more clarity on the unknowns.

You can see the full Montana vaccine distribution draft plan here.