HELENA — The state of Montana is making the biggest expansion yet to who can receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Tuesday that, starting April 1, they will make COVID vaccines available to all Montanans 16 and older.
Currently, Montana is in “Phase 1B+” of its vaccination plan, with those 60 and older or with certain health conditions able to get vaccinated. Gianforte said, with counties moving through that phase, they’ve achieved their main goal of getting vaccines to the people who are most vulnerable to the virus.
“With the movement to 1B+, we’ve now addressed the population where we’ve seen over 90 percent of the deaths and hospitalizations,” he said. “The next logical step was really to make it available to everyone, so that we can go back to normal.”
The state had previously projected it would be able to make vaccines available to essential workers like teachers and first responders this spring, then to all adults by the summer. Now, since vaccine supplies are continuing to increase, Gianforte says they’re able to move that date up.
Gianforte said Tuesday that federal officials told him there will be 22 million vaccine doses available nationwide each week by the start of April – double the weekly supply from last month. He expects Montana’s vaccine allotment will remain about the same for the next two weeks, then increase in April.
Gianforte says, over the next two weeks, they will be working with hundreds of partners – including local health departments and Montana pharmacies – on ways to get ready to start administering doses to this new, larger population.
He again encouraged Montanans to take the vaccine, saying every person who gets it is helping get the state back on track.
“It will help us get back to a more normal life, and one where we get together with friends and families without worry, where we can shop and go to restaurants without worry, where we can go back to our places of worship without worry, where we can go to our kids’ baseball, football and volleyball games without worry – and all without masks,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Gianforte highlighted the role vaccines will play in returning the state to normal. He toured Renaissance Senior Care, a Helena long-term care facility with about 15 residents. He spoke to residents, their family members and staff about what it has meant to have access to the vaccine.
Sharon Meyer’s mother, 94-year-old Clara Longmire, lives at Renaissance. Meyer said Longmire had been depressed by being isolated at the facility and unable to be with her family members.
“Christmas was really tough, because that was one of our main family things,” she said.
Now, both women have been fully vaccinated. Meyer said she’s now able to visit her mother regularly, and even take her outside for small trips around town.
“It was a big relief to me, to everybody, and to Mom, because I told her once she got her shot, it would be better,” she said.
The responsibility for vaccinating residents and staff at long-term care facilities in Montana went to two national pharmacy chains, Walgreens and CVS. They’ve conducted hundreds of vaccine clinics, administering thousands of doses. Walgreens leaders say they’ll finish the last of their assigned clinics on Wednesday.
“Lot of emotional reactions throughout all of these clinics,” said Jeff Nikolaisen, store manager for Walgreens in Butte. “To kind of see from the start to the end, it all come through, and to see some of these reactions come to life, it’s really cool to be a part of.”
Meyer said she was grateful for the vaccine, and she had no hesitation about taking it or having her mother take it.
“I think it’s great, and I thank everybody that made it available,” she said.
Gianforte, who has frequently promised to get the vaccine as soon as he is eligible for it, said Tuesday that he looks forward to that time now coming much sooner.