HELENA — The Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) will be leading the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) pilot program to bring COVID-19 vaccination to rural veterans.
On Jan. 21 a MTVAHCS vaccination team will fly doses of the Moderna vaccine in special plug-in coolers from Fort Harrison’s ultracold on-site freezer to Havre. Veterans in the Havre area who are enrolled in VHA healthcare will be eligible to receive vaccination doses.
Due to the limited number of doses, MTVAHCS will contact eligible Havre area veterans to schedule a vaccination time.
“We are excited that our Montana team has been selected by Dr. Stone, VHA’s Executive in Charge, to lead this rural vaccine distribution program,” said MTVAHCS Executive Director Dr. Judy Hayman.
Hayman says vaccinating rural veterans presents unique challenges. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines need to be stored at specific temperatures and kept cold. Not the easiest of tasks when needing to transport the vaccine to communities that are several driving hours away.
“Getting the vaccine distributed across the state of Montana without winter weather, we would be exceeding some of those time requirements so when you throw in winter and possible travel disruption it’s potentially even more challenging,” said Hayman.
The fixed-wing aircraft solves several issues in getting the vaccine to rural communities. The time to transport the doses is drastically reduced and personnel trained in administering the vaccine can easily travel with the doses.
Hyaman says the intent of being a pilot organization for the distribution program will be to analyze the entire process. They’ll see what works well and what needs to be improved on before the program is implemented across the nation.
MTVAHCS will also begin increased vaccination efforts of veterans this week with clinics happening in Helena, Missoula and Billings. Vaccination is by appointment only and the VA has already been in contact with those eligible.
Hayman says she can’t fully put into words how excited she is that the Montana VA is now vaccinating those most at risk from the disease.
“The sooner they get vaccinated, then we should be at a point down the road where we no longer need to wear masks and can have some semblance of normal resume,” said Hayman
Until enough people are vaccinated, Hayman asks people to think of the veterans that live in Montana, particularly those who are more at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. She strongly encourages people to wear their mask in public, practice social distancing and consider getting vaccinated when it becomes available for them.
Veterans can follow COVID-19 vaccination updates via email, Facebook, and Twitter. If a Veteran has questions about receiving the vaccine, they can send their healthcare team a secure message through MyHealtheVet or call 844-819-0833 to set up a time to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine.