Four hundred veterans got COVID-19 vaccine doses last week in Kalispell. The Montana VA Health Care System is standing up temporary clinics to get shots to vets in rural areas. But amid the nationwide vaccine shortage, some vets are confused about the process and are looking outside of the VA to get a shot.
Kalispell-area veterans are sitting in spaced-out folding chairs, while Montana VA workers call them one by one for their COVID-19 vaccines.
Eighty-two-year-old Carole Beaudion was an Army clerk typist in the 1950s, and is one of the hundreds of veterans getting their shots inside the Flathead County Fairgrounds’ massive trade center building. She was elated when she got a call from the VA saying she qualified.
“It’s kind of like a get-out-of-jail-free card," she laughed.
This is the second pop-up clinic put on through a Montana VA pilot program in which vaccines are flown into communities so rural vets, like Beaudion, have access.
Montana VA Medical Center Executive Director Judy Hayman says the VA is focusing on veterans 75 years old and up, as well as those with underlying medical conditions. It's using medical records to determine who’s most at risk for COVID-19.
"So we were able to pull the data and prioritize them based on age and the other medical risk factors. So we’re calling to schedule appointments."
A little over half of Montana’s roughly 90,000 veterans receive medical care from the VA. The VA is calling vets to schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccines. But some vets who aren’t getting a call are beginning to look outside of the VA for a shot. Terry Baker is a 68-year-old Vietnam combat veteran who says he is still recovering from a COVID-19 infection in late November.
"I still lack oxygen and I'm on oxygen at night," he said. "And I have COPD to begin with, so my breathing's not good."
COPD is a serious respiratory disease but VA officials say plenty of vets older than Baker also have those ailments. Baker is hoping he will be able to get vaccinated through the county.
"Yeah, whoever can get it to me first is who I’m gonna to do it with."
Baker says time is of the essence, as he’s scared he wouldn't survive a second round with COVID-19.
Gary White with the American Legion of Montana says many vets are getting on any vaccine waiting list they can.
“You know, they’re trying to be patient, waiting for phone calls from the VA, but they just feel like they’re out there on their own right now," White says.
Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says, "It troubles me to think that some of these guys go to the private sector to get their vaccine."
Tester, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, says the VA needs more vaccines.
"The VA has stepped up and they’re doing the job, and they're doing the job right, and they need to patted on the back for that," he says. "But Operation Warp Speed from the previous administration has been an abysmal failure."
With only 400 doses per week, the Montana VA has made its way through 5% of veterans in its system according to VA data. Nationally, the VA has given shots to about 7% of its roughly 9 million enrolled vets.
"But I’m here to tell you the fact that we are at the first of February and the numbers that I've got — we’re not where we need to be," Tester says.
Back at the Kalispell clinic, Montana VA Medical Center Executive Director Hayman expects the VA’s vaccine allocations to increase and is asking vets to be patient.
"So the best thing veterans can do is answer the phone when we call, because if we don’t get a hold of you, we’ll go on to the next veteran," she said.
According to a statement from the VA’s national office, its weekly allocation of about 125,000 shots likely won’t increase until March.