Bekki Kirsch Wehner mug shot

Bekki Kirsch Wehner

Section Supervisor

DPHSS Immunization Program

Montana will soon be getting a limited supply of vaccine to distribute, likely sometime mid-December. Just how many doses, however, remains unknown, but regardless of how many doses are in the first shipment, it’s expected to be just the first of what will be many.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be proceeding under emergency use authorizations. That means they have undergone some safety and efficacy trials, including blind trials, but that part of the safety and efficacy data will be collected during distribution of the vaccine.

The first shipments of these emergency-authorized vaccines are likely to be targeted at healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic, who are at high risk of catching COVID-19. That’s according to a vaccination plan released by Montana recently, which its authors say used the CDC playbook as a framework.

The plan describes several phases for vaccination efforts. In phase 1A, the state would push limited quantities of vaccine out to health care workers. In phase 1B it would have additional vaccine, which would go out toward more healthcare workers, and perhaps people in long-term care facilities, depending on how many doses are received.

Bekki Kirsch Wehner, Section Supervisor for DPHSS Immunization Program, told the Sidney Herald Montana estimates it needs around 100,000 doses for its health care workers. That’s for both the first and second shot. For long-term care residents and workers, Wehner estimated the state will need between 10,000 to 20,000 doses for all of the facilities, assuming 100 percent want to take the vaccine.

“We know that’s probably not the case, but we will plan for that anyway.”

In phase 2, the state would look to get vaccines to those at highest risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and in phase 3, it would be looking to vaccinate the general population.

“These phases aren’t linear,” Wehner added. “Some may move into others. We will have to move along where we see the most need, and where we have vaccine and can get it out to people.”

Wehner said the state doesn’t yet have all the information it needs to be more specific with the distribution priorities it is setting, and added that information that affects the planning is changing day to day.

“We just have to be prepared and realize that as information is coming in, we will make adjustments to the plan as best we can,” she said.

These vaccines will be delivered without cost to the recipients, Wehner added. That includes provisions for those who have no health care insurance.

People probably will not be asked to provide any proof of underlying conditions for the initial waves of vaccine.

“Realistically, we hope to have enough vaccine that everyone who wants a vaccination can get it,” Wehner said.”

The vaccination plan also includes an educational component to fight misinformation that’s floating around online about the vaccines. This will include making sure people under stand the emergency use authorization for the vaccines and how that all works, as well as making sure that people have access to accurate, science-based information.

“We want to make sure everyone know show important the vaccine is and that it is safe and effective,” Wehner said.

Montana does have a robust vaccination network already in place across the state which can be used as a foundation to deliver COVID-19 vaccines. Protocols in the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan includes ensuring those who sign up to administer the vaccines have what they need to handle the doses and administer them quickly.

The Pfizer vaccine in particular, which is likely to arrive first, must be kept in ultra cold storage, well below what a normal freezer can do. Think Antarctic temperatures here. Minus 70 to 80 degrees celsius, or negative 94 to negative 112 degrees Farenheit.

Wehner said the state has identified at least six locations that have this type of cold storage already in place for other reasons.

Those locations, of course, are primarily in larger population centers at larger facilities.

“We are working to get some cold storage systems in eastern Montana,” she told the Sidney Herald. “But we don’t have anything completed yet.”

The Pfizer vaccine, however, is just one component of the overall picture. The Moderna vaccine, likely to come just two weeks later, will not require ultra cold storage and will be more in line with what vaccination providers are used to handling.

“The cold storage units aren’t a critical component of vaccine allocation,” Wehner said. “They are a piece of the puzzle. So if there are concerns there are no ultra cold storage units in a certain geography, that won’t preclude being vaccinated.”

Among ideas being considered for distributing the Pfizer vaccine in rural areas is a “hub and spoke” model for regional distribution out of a more central location.

“We are still working on the details of that,” Wehner said.

Another big unknown at this point is just how much of the current Montana plan, developed under Gov. Steve Bullock, will be adopted by the incoming administration.

There are several indicators, however, Gov.-elect Gianforte is aiming for a smooth transition when it comes to fighting COVID-19. He has named a COVID-19 taskforce that includes some of the personnel from Bullock’s administration, and has met with members of Bullock’s COVID-19 taskforce to catch up on the status to date.

His transition team told the Sidney Herald Gianforte will continue to work with Bullock during the transition on COVID-19.

“(Greg Gianforte) recognizes we need to get a better handle on how we confront this virus,” an email from transition staff said. “He’s relying on his COVID-19 Task Force to help chart an effective path forward after he takes office.”

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