What does a COVID-19 vaccine mean for Gallatin County? Who will get the vaccine first?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm. Many infected people have mild or no symptoms. However, 5% of people have long-lasting complications. The news of an effective COVID-19 vaccine arriving soon in Montana is a relief to all. 

The United Kingdom and Canada approved emergency use of a COVID-19 vaccine. Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit. Montana will receive 9,750 vaccine doses by the end of December. The vaccines will be given in two doses, three to four weeks apart. 

How is the vaccine distributed?

The Indian Health Service will deliver the vaccine to Tribal communities. Similarly, the Department of Veterans Affairs will deliver the vaccine to veterans. Once authorized by the FDA, the vaccine will be made and distributed to the states. Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services has a three-phase distribution plan.

Phase 1: Critical Workforce & a Limited Supply. Critical workers and those at highest risk for life-threatening complications get the first doses. This includes residents of long-term care facilities, people 65 years and older, and people with severe medical issues. This phase is expected to take two months.

Phase 2: Expanded Dispensing & an Adequate Supply. Begin expanding to other groups, including people at high risk to get and spread COVID-19 and with limited access to medical services. This phase is expected to take three to six months.

Phase 3: Normalize Distribution & a Sufficient Supply. The vaccine is given to all adults. Distribution is routine. This phase will most likely take more than six months.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department is working on a vaccine distribution plan with local medical and community partners. We will include vaccine information on our website, as more information becomes available. 

How reliable is the vaccine? Are there side effects?

Pfizer’s vaccine was tested on over 43,000 people across six counties. It is 95% effective at preventing COVID-19. Few side effects were reported. 

The vaccine is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, children under 16, or people with extreme allergies and illness. Allergic reactions from the vaccine are rare.  

Vaccine storage is an issue. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -94°F. Healthcare facilities must be able to store the Pfizer vaccine before they will receive doses. Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital has the cold storage capacity for this vaccine. 

Moderna has also applied for emergency authorization for its vaccine. The Moderna vaccine is 94% effective with no serious side effects. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at -4°F, and is a better candidate for distribution to remote and rural areas.  

A third vaccine by AstraZeneca is in late-stage clinical trials. This vaccine can be stored at normal refrigerated temperatures and is cheaper than the other vaccines. AstraZeneca has pledged not to make a profit from the vaccine. Instead, the vaccine will support the COVAX program, which works towards worldwide equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine

Can a COVID-19 vaccine create herd immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a high percentage of a population (or herd) is immune to a disease, through vaccine or infection. Individuals who are not immune, such as babies and at-risk people, are protected because the disease is not common in the population. 

Herd immunity will take time and the majority of people in the ‘’herd’ must be vaccinated. As communities vaccinate, COVID-19 cases slow, and commerce reopens, traveling to areas without vaccine access can create new outbreaks. For places without a vaccine program, COVID-19 may become endemic with seasonal infection peaks. 

What can I do until a vaccine is available?

Vaccines are an exciting tool against the COVID-19 pandemic. Until we have access to vaccines and cases begin to slow, we must continue to take steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We must protect our at-risk neighbors from infection and flatten the curve for our healthcare workers. Stay six feet from others, wear a face covering when in public, stay home when sick, and sanitize your hands and frequently touched surfaces. Most importantly, avoid gatherings as COVID-19 cases continue in Gallatin County and across Montana.

Our community will get through this together.  We can do this!