New phases of Montana’s COVID vaccination plan cause some frustration

Posted at 6:26 PM, Jan 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-04 20:26:55-05

GREAT FALLS — Wendy Johnson is sure she’s not the only one frustrated by the changes to Montana’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan.

Under the previous version of the plan, prior to former Governor Steve Bullock’s December announcement that the state’s anticipated allocation of vaccine doses through the end of the year has been reduced by the federal government by 20%, Johnson and her husband both fell into Phase 1B because they are both older than 65.

Under the updated COVID vaccination phases, which follows a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Wendy, who is 68, now falls into Phase 1C, while her husband, who is 76, should be vaccinated in Phase 1B. That could put up to six months between when Wendy’s husband receives the vaccine and when she does.

She’s frustrated because, up until recently, the CDC was recommending that people ages 65 and older fall into the same category. “65 and older,” she said. “That's what has been on the CDC guidelines since the jump-start.”

And she’s right.

In fact, the recommendation that brought these updated phases of vaccine distribution was sparked by a recommendation to the CDC by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). It provides states with guidelines for vaccine distribution in the event that there are limited supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine, even more so than originally anticipated, as is the case in Montana and most places around the U.S.

The recommendation says, in part: “Demand for COVID-19 vaccines is expected to exceed supply during the first months of the national COVID-19 vaccination program. ACIP advises CDC on population groups and circumstances for vaccine use. On December 1, ACIP recommended that 1) health care personnel and 2) residents of long-term care facilities be offered COVID-19 vaccination first, in Phase 1a of the vaccination program. On December 20, 2020, ACIP recommended that in Phase 1b, vaccine should be offered to persons aged ≥75 years and frontline essential workers (non–health care workers), and that in Phase 1c, persons aged 65–74 years, persons aged 16–64 years with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not recommended for vaccination in Phase 1b should be offered vaccine.”

But why? We contacted the CDC to get a better understanding of why they had divided people 65 years of age and older into ages 65-74 and 75+.

A spokesperson told us, in part: “Vaccine allocation to people 75 years and older is supported by their high risk for COVID-19–associated morbidity and mortality and is anticipated to also reduce hospitalizations in this group, easing the burden on strained health care systems. Populations included in Phase 1c (including people 65-74 years old) are either at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 compared with the general population or support ongoing critical infrastructure operations.”

They also provided the following statistics:

  • As of December 20, 2020, the cumulative incidence of COVID-19 among people 75 and older was 3,839 per 100,000 persons, with a cumulative hospitalization rate of 1,211 per 100,000, and a mortality rate of 719 per 100,000.
  • As of December 20, 2020, the cumulative COVID-19 incidence of COVID-19 among people 65-74 years old was 3,109 per 100,000 persons, with a cumulative hospitalization rate of 642 per 100,000, and a mortality rate of 188 per 100,000.

The CDC website provides a table to illustrate the exponential increase of risk of developing severe symptoms as a result of COVID-19 based on your age. The control group in this example is people ages 18-29 with no underlying health conditions. According to the table, people aged 30-39 are twice as likely to be hospitalized if they contract COVID-19, and four times as likely to die from symptoms brought on by the virus. People 40-49 years old are three times as likely to go to the hospital, and 10 times as likely to die. Ages 50-64 are four times more likely to go to the hospital and 30 times more likely to die. Ages 65-74 are five times more likely to go to the hospital and 90 times more likely to die. Ages 75-84 are eight times more likely to go to the hospital and 220 times more likely to die. And finally, people 85 years old and older are 13 times more likely to go to the hospital and 630 times more likely to die.

Again, all of those statistics compare that age group to the control group, an 18-29-year-old with no underlying health conditions. That is just some of the data that the CDC used when they decided to make a distinction between people who are 65 to 74 and 74+.

Despite that, Wendy says she understands the data and the science behind the recommendation, but she’s still frustrated that the timeline she and people her age now face.

“I was aware of the CDC guidelines from early on,” she said. “And so that's been months that it's been that way. And then just probably in the past month or less the guidelines got changed. My understanding was there was a panel of 60 people…(and they) made the recommendation to change that to 75 and older. And so, it just moved the goalpost for me.”

Wendy says she has reached out to the state regarding whether or not this new plan will remain in place, or whether it’s possible that it can be changed to include people 65 and older back into the highest age group. She says she hasn’t heard anything back. This also raises questions of what she should do once her husband is vaccinated but she is not.

We know that the vaccine does not prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, it minimizes the chance that you will experience symptoms from the virus. If Wendy’s husband is vaccinated and she is not, it’s possible that he could become infected and never experience symptoms, while she could get the virus from him, and without the vaccine, not be as lucky.

If you have any questions about Montana’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, email them to me at

Gianforte: New Covid guidelines out this week

For more information:

  • DPHHS has launched a vaccine FAQ website page that provides a vaccine distribution status update and other Montana-specific information.
  • Montanans can email questions to or call 1-888-333-0461.
  • The CDC has an informative FAQ section that covers topics such as the nation’s plan for vaccine distribution, vaccine development, information about getting vaccinated, and safety concerns.