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Montana sticks to its patchwork COVID vaccine rollout as eligibility expands

Katheryn Houghton, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

“It might not be the way everybody else does stuff, but it’s the way we do stuff,” Murnion said.

In larger counties, a major hurdle is making sure all residents can navigate systems in which they’re competing with thousands for appointments.

Despite Klemp’s difficulty making an appointment by phone, Missoula County set aside 20% of available vaccine appointments for seniors without internet access, according to Adriane Beck, Missoula County’s emergency management director. The county also held an outreach campaign using nonprofit agencies, utility bill inserts and ads run by newspapers and radio and television stations to prod people to make appointments by phone.

But, to the dismay of some, the county doesn’t offer a vaccine waitlist for people struggling to book an appointment.

“From a logistical and just a management perspective, we were not going to be successful and we were not going to meet people’s expectations,” Beck said.

She said making vaccines available to all people over 16 may complicate access for more vulnerable groups until supplies increase. An effort is underway, she said, to reach “stragglers” and homebound residents.

The Flathead Nation’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have outpaced many Montana counties when it comes to vaccine distribution, despite what Health Director Chelsea Kleinmeyer described as a low initial allocation by the state to the tribes. Weeks before the state’s April 1 expansion of eligibility to the general population, tribal health officials were offering shots to all adult tribal members along with descendants and other Native Americans.

Kleinmeyer said tribal health officials relied heavily on community health representatives to identify and contact vulnerable elders. Health officials eventually worked their way to anyone living in an American Indian household along with tribal and nontribal teachers and employees. The Salish and Kootenai Tribes had planned to vaccinate approximately 12,000 people.


“We feel like maybe we hit this saturation point with tribal people on the reservation,” Kleinmeyer said, adding the tribe is now preparing to help nearby counties.

Silver Bow County is using its civic center ticketing system, usually used for concerts and sporting events, as one way to schedule vaccine appointments.

“We thought, if you could get a ticket to go to a basketball game, why couldn’t we do that here? And it worked,” said Karen Sullivan, health officer for Butte-Silver Bow County.

Sullivan said the overall joy that people exhibit at vaccine clinics has been a bright spot during a difficult period. The past year has been one of threats and verbal attacks against her and her staffers for implementing COVID restrictions. Sullivan, 62, said she’s considering early retirement after seeing the vaccine rollout through.

“I’m not gonna leave in the middle of this,” Sullivan said. “When we get to the point where we have a great percentage of our people vaccinated, I’ll give retirement some serious thought. I need the rest.”


(Eric Dietrich and Chris Aadland of Montana Free Press and Andrea Halland, Antonio Ibarra Olivares, Aidan Morton and Addie Slanger of the University of Montana School of Journalism contributed to this report. KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.)

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