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What We Know, Don’t Know About COVID-19 Vaccination Distribution Plans In Montana

Vaccine stock photo.

Montana health Officials held a meeting Tuesday with various stakeholders on their plan to distribute forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines.

Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton listened in on that meeting and he joins us now to walk us through what we know and don’t know, at this point about vaccination distribution plans in Montana. 

Corin Cates-Carney: We’ve been hearing a lot in the national media about Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines. Initial data suggests that both could be 90 percent or more effective. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be considering emergency use for Phizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10 and Moderna’s could be considered at that same meeting. What are Montana health officials saying about how soon vaccines could arrive in Montana?

Aaron Bolton: State Health officials say they just don’t know at this point. It could be shortly after the FDA potentially approves emergency use authorization for the Phizer vaccine on Dec. 10. Federal officials are saying they can ship out vaccines to various locations around the country in 24 hours. Bekki Wehner is the state health department’s Communicable Disease Control Bureau Chief. She said the timing depends in part on what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends on things like what populations are best suited for each vaccine. Federal officials also still need to work out other information on shipping and handling considerations as well as how providers will administer these vaccines. Wehner explains that the providers the state has enrolled to administer COVID vaccines need to be trained on all of this.

“All of that information of course we want to get to our providers before they even receive it so they know exactly what to do when they receive that box.”

Cates-Carney: What else do you know about how vaccines will be distributed and who is likely to be first in line?

Bolton: Frontline healthcare workers coming in contact with COVID positive patients are first in line in the state’s plan. Other healthcare workers as well as residents and staff in long-term health care facilities will likely be next. But Wehner says that plan could change based on vaccine availability

“We need to remember at this point, everybody needs two doses of vaccine. In order to vaccinate what we consider to be our healthcare settings, we’d probably need 90,000 to 100,000 doses.”

After healthcare workers are immunized, the state will focus on vulnerable populations with underlying health conditions and Wehner says vaccines could be available to anyone who wants one by this spring.

Wehner says the state hopes to learn more about how much the federal government will allocate to the state in the next two weeks and that will give us a better idea of how fast we could move down the line of vaccine distribution

Cates-Carney: So the state has this outline, it could change, but this outline for who will get vaccines when they’re available. How hands on is the state in distributing the vaccines once the federal regulators approve them?

Bolton: Wehner said the federal government will allocate vaccines to the state, but it’s not going to physically receive vaccine shipments and then redistribute them to providers. The state will really play traffic control so vaccines can be shipped directly to providers in order to avoid any storage mishaps.

Cates-Carney: Are there any possible mishaps, troubles, in sight for the vaccine supply chain in Montana?

Bolton: One potential complication with shipping vaccines directly to providers is that Phizer’s needs to be stored at -80 degrees celsius.

Wehner says those vaccines will come in this thermal box that can maintain those temperatures for up to 10 days.

“And then to make it even more complicated, the only way Pfizer is sending this vaccine right now is in a minimum order of 975 doses. So not only does a person or a facility receiving this vaccine need to be able to store this vaccine appropriately, they also need to be able to vaccinate a large number of people in a quick amount of time.”

Cates-Carney: How are these vaccines going to be kept that cold if providers can’t administer them in 10 days?

Bolton: Wehner says there are six to 10 ultra-cold storage facilities in the state that can maintain those vaccines longer. But the state will really try to avoid stockpiling vaccines at these facilities and focus on getting them directly to providers. She also noted that Moderna’s vaccine can be stored in a normal freezer and minimum orders are around 100 vaccines, so that will ease some of these logistical issues when it becomes available.

Cates-Carney: Is the state the only one playing traffic control for vaccines coming into the state?

Bolton: No. The Montana VA said Monday it expects to receive shipments from the federal government and it was noted in today’s meeting with state officials that the Indian Health Service will also receive its own allocations. According to state health officials, most tribes in the state are electing to receive their vaccinations from the federal government. 

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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