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Montanans React to Governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Plan Revisions

A recent revision to Montana’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan means frontline workers, who expected to receive the limited doses of the shot in the next several weeks, now face at least several more months of wait-time, while elders and people with underlying health conditions could be immunized before April.

KaCee Ballou, president of Missoula Education Association, says just after winter break, she told the teachers she represents that they were going to be eligible for the vaccine.

“Man, we have the potential to be vaccinated before spring break,” Ballou says.

But the following day, Governor Greg Gianforte announced changes to the state’s vaccine rollout plan.

“There will be challenges, but we are committed to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable in our communities next,” Gianforte says.

Those over 70 and those between 16 and 69 years old with specific health conditions were moving up into Phase 1B. Teachers, along with other frontline workers such as postal workers and grocery store clerks, would be a lower priority.

The new vaccine prioritization includes over a quarter of a million people in Phase 1B, as opposed to the original 90,000. And while providers have the ability to vaccinate quickly, federal vaccine allocation is very slow and unpredictable due to extremely limited vaccine supply.

Ballou says educators were finalizing plans with the vaccine in mind to make it through the spring semester when the news broke.

“It was devastating and disheartening and we had just given them that breath of fresh air. I mean they just felt deflated. We all did,” Ballou says.

Amanda Curtis, the president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest union, says the original vaccine plan covered a third of the union’s members, including about 12,000 educators.

She says the governor’s decision was “hasty” and will delay schools from offering safe face-to-face classes, which will slow down the economy.

“We have teachers across the state and other school employees, other educators, who are being repeatedly quarantined for ten days to two weeks at a time, due to COVID exposure, and causing school closures across the state over and over and over again as we see community spikes,” Curtis says.

The most recent closure occurred last week. The Dodson Public School district cancelled all classes and extracurricular activities until Feb. 8, due to an outbreak of over two dozen cases, representing a large spike for a district serving about 80 students.

“And so if the governor would have chosen to prioritize at least educators, if not all essential workers, at least educators, we would have a much more successful plan for keeping all schools face-to-face regardless of what else happens during this pandemic,” Curtis says.

While many teachers must now wait for the vaccine, Gianforte’s revisions mean those with health conditions such as diabetes, severe obesity and cancer can get the vaccine sooner.

Laura Makaroff is the American Cancer Society’s Senior Vice President of Prevention and Early Detection. She says her patients are extremely relieved to be getting the vaccine.

“People with cancer are at high risk for all the complications that put you in the hospital and or require an ICU stay. So respiratory distress and intubation, blood clots and multiorgan failure that happens as people get very sick with COVID. Actually, there's a lot of different diseases that are putting people at high risk for those complications, but cancer's on top of the list,” Makaroff says.

Makaroff, who is also a family physician in Georgia, says cancer patients should speak with their health care provider to be sure the vaccine is the right choice at their specific point in their cancer journey. But Makaroff says prioritizing cancer patients is important.

“I just really applaud Montana's efforts to ensure fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine, ensuring that people with medical vulnerabilities are prioritized,” Makaroff says.

Tim Summers, the state director for AARP in Montana, also supports the new vaccine priorities.

“The percentage of hospitalizations and deaths among older Montanans, those with underlying medical conditions and Native Americans has been especially high. So, anything we can do to get these groups vaccinated could help save lives,” Summers says.

Summers says many of their members are taking the wait-and-see approach to observe how the nearly 16,000 immunized Montanans respond to the vaccine. But AARP is encouraging their members to get the vaccine and many are excited to do so.

Gary Phillipe, the President of the Montana Postal Workers Union, feels conflicted about the re-prioritization.

“I'm kind of on both ends of the spectrum right now,” Phillipe says.

Since he’s over 70, Phillipe is eligible for the vaccine now. But he points out that like many people his age, he’s retired with social security benefits, so he can safely stay home and “hibernate” while if a frontline worker catches the virus, they’re out of work for two weeks.

“Those guys lose a lot of money being out of the workforce,” Phillipe says.

As of early January, Phillipe says 505 Montana postal workers have contracted the coronavirus, and twenty are still out of work.

He says he feels like the coronavirus keeps him and everyone else from letting their guard down even for a minute. Phillipe says he’s just like everyone else, he wants the shot as soon as possible.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

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