The Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care system is leading a national pilot program to bring the COVID-19 vaccine to rural veterans.
The Montana VA spent the past two and a half weeks planning the delivery trip to Havre and making a blueprint for getting the vaccine into rural areas. Their plan will be used by other states with similar geographical challenges in the coming weeks. Montana VA Chief of Pharmacy Lori Fitzgerald says Thursday's clinic went well.
"We left Helena at 6:00 A.M. Loaded up our transport cooler, which had the vaccine in it, and we plugged that into the plane, to maintain the proper temperature for the vaccine," Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald says this special cooler uses an alarm system to alert health care workers to temperature changes, which can spoil the vaccine.
"We're kind of limited in where we can have the vaccine and transporting it is challenging so this was one of our first real rural locations to take the vaccine on an airplane."
By 9 A.M. the team set up a vaccine clinic at the mall in Havre. Fitzgerald says appointments were made in advance.
"We had called every veteran in the Havre area, some came from Malta, and there may be some other nearby locations," Fitzgerald says.
The team vaccinated 240 veterans with the Moderna vaccine Thursday.
To pull off the remote vaccine clinic, Fitzgerald says VA health care workers from around the state, including Great Falls and Glasgow, were shuffled into a team and appointments were set strategically.
"We started with our highest risk, so we do have a risk stratification, where we start with those over 80 and then those over 75 with conditions."
Fitzgerald says the veterans she saw were excited.
"It was very liberating, they felt like this is the light at the end of the tunnel, we're getting started. We can get out of this pandemic. And the mood was very elevated and everyone was positive and was very thankful that we were here."
Montana’s VA is vaccinating veterans in non-rural areas as well. The agency says over 850 health care workers along with more than 600 veterans have been vaccinated in Montana. 200 more veterans in Billings and Bozeman are scheduled to be vaccinated this week.
Vaccine supply remains unpredictable and demand far exceeds availability. The VA and county health departments are asking the public not to call about vaccines. The VA will call eligible, enrolled veterans as vaccine is available.
Fitzgerald says even with the vaccine, the public needs to continue following safety guidelines.
"Even if they have gotten their first dose and they're feeling confident, they should still wear their mask, wash their hands, appropriately distance and stay home if they're ill," Fitzgerald says.
The Montana health department confirmed 408 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, as well as six deaths from the virus.
Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America tribal affairs reporter.