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Arms, not vaccine, in short supply

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | March 16, 2021 7:00 AM

While securing a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccine is no longer a problem, finding arms to jab has emerged as a sticking point.

Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners on March 10 that her department had run through most of its list of eligible residents. She gave the assessment after Commissioner Mark Peck While securing a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccine is no longer a problem, finding arms to jab has emerged as a sticking point.

Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully previously reported that her department had run through most of its list of eligible residents. She reiterated that assessment after Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) asked March 10 why Lincoln County seemed to have fallen behind other counties.

“The problem is finding people here who want to take it [that] qualify,” McCully said.

As of March 12, the county had administered 4,978 doses, according to the state’s vaccination tracking website. So far, 1,235 people were fully immunized against COVID-19.

In a county with an estimated 16,874 residents eligible — now and in the future — for a vaccine, that puts the doses per 1,000 people at 295. Peck compared that to Beaverhead County, eligible population 8,068, which had reached 401.6 doses per 1,000.

“I’m trying to understand the state’s [strategy] — what they’re doing with these vaccines,” Peck said. “Because according to their map we’re still way below where we should be. We’re not where we should be on a statewide basis.”

Peck also wondered if it had to do with participation. McCully said she could not answer that, but reiterated that finding eligible recipients remained a challenge. A week earlier, McCully and health department chief Kathi Hooper told the county’s top elected officials that they had gone through nearly all residents on its phase 1B list. That’s a departure from last month, when residents reported waiting anxiously for a call from the health department.

Commissioners responded by pledging to lobby the state for more doses for Lincoln County. At that point, the county was receiving shipments of about 300 a week. More recently, health department staff reported receiving shipments of 1,000 doses.

When Peck asked McCully for an assessment of the logistics, she warned that the supply could dry up if more people did not step forward.

“In fact, we might start turning some [vaccine] away,” McCully said. “If we hang on to too many, they’ll stop shipping them anyway.”

“I’m trying to understand the state strategy on that,” Peck replied dryly.

Part of the problem may be the Veterans Administration, which launched a parallel vaccination effort. But the federal agency does not share its information with the county, McCully said.

Those interested in receiving the vaccine — it remains voluntary, but recommended — can contact county health department personnel at 406-293-6295.

The state entered “phase B+” of its vaccination rollout on March 8. The new phase, announced by Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this month, opens vaccine eligibility to more residents, including those age 60 and above or 16 and older suffering from a medical condition.

Eligible conditions under the previous phase included residents with cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Down syndrome, heart conditions, severe obesity, sickle cell disease, and type 1 and 2 diabetes. That group has expanded to include residents suffering from moderate-to-severe asthma, cerebrovascular disease, cystic fibrosis, compromised immune systems, neurologic conditions, liver disease, pulmonary fibrosis or thalassemia. A complete list is available at the state Department of Public Health and Human Service website.

Officials expect the state to enter phase 1C in mid to late spring. That stage includes essential workers not included in earlier phases as well as those living in group homes, congregant care and in correctional facilities.