Tracking the changes to Montana’s COVID-19 vaccination plan

Moderna Vaccine
Posted at 2:35 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 17:40:50-05

GREAT FALLS — Many people have sent in questions about when they will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, indicating their age, health conditions, situations, etc.

While we’ve tried to keep everyone up to date with specific answers for everyone’s situations, one obstacle that we, as well as hospitals and healthcare providers across the state, have to deal with is the changes that the plan has undergone since it was originally released in November. The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services was very clear at that time that the plan that they were releasing was merely a draft, and was subject to change.

Well, it has - several times now. One of the factors driving that change is the widespread lack of vaccine availability.

“I have tasked DPHHS and General Quinn to begin the process of revising the vaccine distribution plan to prioritize the most vulnerable in our communities,” Governor Greg Gianforte said at his first COVID press briefing earlier this week. “We are currently in the process of working through a system to begin expanding vaccine distribution specifically to the following groups: all Montanans of 70 years of age or older and Montanans aged 16 to 69 that have specific underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.”

The first draft of the plan sorted initial distribution of the vaccine into four phases: critical infrastructure workers, people at increased risk for severe COVID illness such as long term care facility residents, people 65 and older, and anyone with underlying health conditions, then people with increased risk of transmitting the virus and people with limited access to vaccines.

In late December, Governor Steve Bullock announced that both the distribution plan and timeline for vaccination had changed. In this version of the plan, frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facilities were in Phase 1a, people 75 and older, frontline essential workers, and American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID complications were in Phase 1b, and other essential workers, people 65 and older or ages 16-64 with underlying health conditions fell into Phase 1c.

That version of the plan was released less than a month ago but it has now been changed again. The most recent update to the plan came out on January 6 and has one major, notable change. While Phase 1a of the new plan remains unchanged, Phase 1b now includes anyone 70 and older, instead of 75, and anyone with a “high-risk medical condition”. Phase 1c includes other frontline essential workers, anyone over the age of 60, and people with an “elevated risk of covid-19 complications.”

The biggest changing variable through all of this has been the cutoff age when older members of the population start becoming eligible to get the vaccine. At first, it was 65, then it was 75 and older in one group, and 65-74 in the next group. As of the most recent update to the timeline and the plan, it’s now 70 and older in Phase 1b, with 60-69-year-olds falling into Phase 1c.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided some guidance to state and federal officials about how to divide up distribution groups when allocations of the vaccine are limited, as they are now right now.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices says that when doses of the vaccine are limited, healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents should receive it in Phase 1a, then they say frontline essential workers and anyone 75 or older should be next. Their Phase 1c includes everyone 65+, and anyone with an underlying health condition that could increase their risk of serious illness from the virus.

That guidance aligns most with the second version of Montana’s plan, released by former Governor Bullock back in December, which specified that people 75 and older should be in Phase 1b, while frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facilities fell into Phase 1a, just like the ACIP advised.

The CDC also gives the following caveat at the bottom of their limited-vaccine guidance: “The goal is for everyone to be able to easily get a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as large enough quantities of vaccine are available. As vaccine supply increases but remains limited, ACIP will expand the groups recommended for vaccination.”

Earlier this week, President-elect Joe Biden said he plans to release nearly all available vaccine doses to states, instead of holding back some doses to ensure that second doses all arrive in a timely manner. According to the New York Times, that announcement comes after several governors, including Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, wrote a letter to the President-elect, asking the incoming administration to release all available doses to states as quickly as possible.

If more doses are released after January 20, when Biden takes office, that could once again change how many vaccines are available to Montanans, and the plan and timeline that the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services presents.

Click here to visit the Montana DPHHS COVID website.

There were 708 new COVID-19 cases reported in Montana on Friday morning, and the statewide death toll since the pandemic began has now reached 1,050, according to data compiled by MTN News. Flathead County reported four COVID-19 deaths, and Fergus County reported two deaths. Lewis & Clark and Valley counties each reported one new death due to the virus.

The number of active cases in the state is currently 5,129, according to MTN News, and there has been a cumulative total of 85,843 cases of the virus in Montana. Of the total cases, 79,664 have recovered. There are currently 205 people hospitalized for treatment of the virus, and the cumulative number of hospitalizations is 3,814. The number of tests performed in the state has reached 831,887, an increase of 8,608 during the previous 24-hour reporting period.

SOURCES: The numbers reported above reflect the latest data from the official Montana COVID website as well as supplemental data from county health departments. The disparity between numbers provided by the MT Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) and numbers from county health departments continues to grow as COVID cases escalate in Montana. MTN News uses both state data and county data to provide more accurate and timely information. As a result, numbers reported by MTN do not align with the DPHHS figures.

CONTEXT: Not every person who tests positive actually becomes ill or exhibits symptoms. Many do not; of those who do become sick, some experience mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization. Others experience more severe symptoms, and some do require hospitalization. Every person who tests positive for COVID, however, has the potential to spread the virus to other people, including family members and friends, which is why public health officials continue to encourage everyone to wear a mask and maintain at least the recommended six feet of "social distance" when in public. The CDC released data in late August which emphasizes that people with contributing or chronic medical conditions are at much greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Click here to read more.