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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

VA Working Overtime To Vaccinate At-Risk Vets For COVID-19

A VA nurse gives one of 400 veterans their COVID-19 vaccine at the Flathead County Fairgrounds Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2021.
Aaron Bolton
A VA nurse gives one of 400 veterans their COVID-19 vaccine at the Flathead County Fairgrounds Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2021.

The Veterans Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout took center stage at two separate events this week, one in Montana the other on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing Wednesday to update Congress on the massive effort to vaccinate the nation’s veterans

Dr. Richard Stone, the VA’s acting Undersecretary for Health told committee chair, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, that the VA’s allotment gets a huge bump, doubling, next week.

"I’m quite pleased, sir that we just received a call before we came over here that we will, next week, receive almost 600,000 doses."

Tester said, "That’s good. That’s really good."

Tester has been pressing the Biden administration to allocate more doses of COVID-19 vaccine for the VA. He calls it an obligation and a "cost of war."

More than 11 percent of the adult population in Montana are veterans, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

As demand for the vaccine continues to outstrip supply, Montana’s congressional delegation and Gov. Greg Gianforte have called for more doses to come to Montana. 

The VA says it’s making a full-court press to vaccinate as many eligible, high risk veterans as possible.

VA staff are calling vets to schedule appointments, answer questions and allay any vaccine-related concerns. While some veterans have said they’re confused about the vaccine distribution process, Under Secretary Stone says the proactive outreach is paying big dividends around the country.

"Enrolled veterans, over age of 75, the group currently prioritized for vaccination, 25 percent of white, 28 percent of Hispanic and 30 percent of black veterans have been vaccinated."

Stone told committee members Wednesday that vaccine hesitancy is more common in rural America than in communities of color. 

Dr. Jane Kim leads VA’s national COVID vaccine planning team. Kim says vets appreciate and respond to science-based, one-on-one conversations. She says VA health care providers are putting in long hours and lots of phone calls to speak directly with their rural patients.

"There really is no substitute for the hard work of calling somebody and having a conversation with them," Kim said. "It is 100 percent worth it. When you can talk to one person and they can figure out they do want to get vaccinated, they tell their family, they tell other veterans, and they tell their co-workers."

VA is also using virtual town halls to provide updates about COVID vaccines. In fact, the Montana VA Health Care System held one of these online events Thursday evening.

Montana VA Health Care System Executive Director Dr. Judy Hayman welcomed the vets.

Montana VA Medical Center Director Judy Hayman addresses VA staff from around the state before they vaccinated 400 veterans from around Kalispell Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2021.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
Montana VA Medical Center Director Judy Hayman addresses VA staff from around the state before they vaccinated 400 veterans from around Kalispell Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2021.

"We’d all like to start off by thanking you for your service and thanking you for remaining engaged with your health care teams throughout this pandemic."

Hayman and several colleagues fielded questions from Montana vets that specifically focused on COVID-19 vaccines and distribution. The live, fast paced online Q&A session drew over 2,500 participants.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and were evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials. 

But one caller from Missoula expressed skepticism about the vaccines.

"I’ve been doing a lot of research on this one. It’s got some pretty shady origins out of China."

Montana VA Health Care’s Chief of staff, Dr. JP Maganito responded by saying the vaccines have been fully tested, evaluated and shown to be effective. He added that the data also show the vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweigh any potential risks.

Another participant wanted to know if the COVID vaccines affect a diabetic’s sugar levels:

"Oh, that’s a good question. It really doesn't," Maganito said. "All it does is create an antibody against that spiked protein so that if you are exposed to the COVID disease it immediately attacks it and keeps it away from your body."

Someone else wanted to know if the VA is going to require the COVID vaccine for veterans, and wondered if there will be any repercussions for those who don’t want one. 

"No and No," Dr. Judy Hayman replied.

But VA Health officials strongly encourage veterans get vaccinated when it’s their turn.

This week marked a somber milestone of half a million American lives lost to COVID-19.

VA Health officials say nationally over 10,000 of those deaths were veterans, and 131 were VA employees. 

Montana VA Health Care officials tell Montana Public Radio they’re aware of at least 39 Montana veterans who lost their lives to COVID-19.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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