HELENA — On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced all Montanans 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine starting April 1. Now, it will be up to local health departments to get ready to handle the increased demand.
Leaders with Lewis and Clark Public Health say they will be ready to meet Gianforte’s directive. Eric Merchant, administrator of LCPH’s Disease Control and Prevention Division, said they have the staff, the space and the partners to ramp up their vaccine clinics next month – but getting enough vaccine supply will be a bigger issue.
“The increase in eligibility will certainly increase the demand, the immediate demand,’ he said. “So on a week-to-week basis, there are more people that will want to be registered than have in the past, and that will create issues and frustration for certain individuals. But again, the plan is to ramp up to our capacity and get more opportunities.”
Merchant said their plan is to start by increasing the number of doses they deliver at their regular drive-thru clinics at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. Currently, they are giving about 900 first doses and 900 second doses per week.
“We are far below our capacity at this point,” Merchant said.
Once the vaccine supply increases and they reach the limit of what they can do at the fairgrounds, Merchant said they will share any remaining doses with other providers to get them out faster.
“We are definitely going to be establishing additional points of distribution, by appointment largely, through pharmacies, other medical providers, clinics that are signed up as enrolled providers,” he said.
Montana is currently in Phase 1B+ of its vaccination plan, giving shots to people 60 and older and those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Merchant said about a quarter of the people in Phase 1B+ have had their first dose of the vaccine.
According to LCPH data, an estimated 33,800 people in Lewis and Clark County are currently eligible to receive the vaccine. Another 22,200 will become eligible on April 1.
The state had previously planned a Phase 1C of the vaccination plan, where “essential workers” – including teachers, first responders and food service and grocery workers – and those in living in group homes, shelters and other congregate settings would have become eligible. That would have applied to about 15,000 people in Lewis and Clark County. Now, the people in that group and the 7,200 remaining residents over 16 will be able to get the vaccine at the same time.
Merchant said LCPH is looking at ways to target vaccines to specific groups, including teachers and child care providers.
At the end of this week, LCPH plans to open registration for the next two weeks of Phase 1B+ vaccination clinics. They will then start getting ready for the next step.
“I want people to be positive here, because we are actually getting there,” Merchant said. “We can see the horizon. Things are changing.”
You can find full information about vaccinations in Lewis and Clark County at the county’s online COVID-19 hub.