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Distribution confusion: Some Billings teachers move to front of line for COVID vaccine as St. Vincent scrambles to distribute doses

Posted at 6:54 PM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 22:05:04-05

BILLINGS- In an attempt to vaccinate all healthcare workers and emergency responders for COVID-19 through the plan outlined by Gov. Greg Gianforte, St. Vincent Healthcare is changing its process after a recent snafu where a number of local teachers were vaccinated out of turn.

Late Thursday night, during an “invitation only” COVID-19 vaccine clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare officials say “a number of local educators” were given the vaccine.

And while teachers are considered front-line workers, they’re not yet in line to get the vaccine under Gianforte's plan, which places elderly and at-risk Montanans further ahead in line. Teachers were a higher priority in former Gov. Steve Bullock's plan, which was based on CDC guidelines but not set in stone when Bullock's term ended at the end of 2020.

Here’s how St. Vincent officials say the situation unfolded:

A letter with a special “invitation code” was meant to be circulated to local healthcare organizations and first responders in the Phase 1A vaccination tier.

The invite instructed recipients to set up an account with St. Vincent and get registered. But officials say what was intended to just go to a “limited” number of medical officials in line to get a COVID-19 vaccine was shared among the community.

St. Vincent Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bush says the intent of the invitation letter and code was to promptly notify groups of their turn to get the vaccine while supplies last.

“We were not screening that process. At this point, it looks like we do need to start screening that process and will be screening that going forward,” said Bush.

However, there’s a level of confusion and some frustration about distributing the COVID-19 vaccine that’s been seen across Montana and the United States.

Monday morning, CDC officials said the current vaccine strategy is not working, citing the many hospitals that have been forced to throw away supplies that have been removed from cold storage and not administered in time to enough people.

In those instances, officials said sometimes there aren’t enough people to vaccinate before the doses expire.

While St. Vincent doesn’t necessarily have that problem, the process is not perfect, according to Bush.

“I will admit that I would really love to know that we have a consistent supply chain, knowing how many doses we're going to get in a month, and those type of things,” said Bush.

Currently, Montana is in phase 1A where emergency responders, healthcare workers and those living in long-term care facilities are able to get the vaccine.

Last week, Gianforte handed down a distribution plan for Montanans who are set to go next in line during phase 1B. Those individuals include those 70 years and older and those 16-69 with underlying medical conditions.

As of now, teachers are set to go in the next phase, 1C, but those instructions have not been definitively outlined from the state health agency or the governor’s office.

Angela Douglas, a St. Vincent spokeswoman, says while they aren’t exactly sure how many teachers were vaccinated, the clinic drew roughly 400 individuals that night.

At that point, Douglas says they chose to not cancel appointments that were already scheduled within one day of when they first learned of the letter being shared with individuals outside of Phase 1A.

Something she says they knew as early as Wednesday.

“Any appointments that were scheduled by community members outside of Phase 1A after Thursday were canceled so we could give those slots to the Phase 1A community members,” Douglas said.

Still Bush says the hospital is going to administer everything they’re given in addition to sticking with the distribution plan.

“The biggest mistake we can make in this whole vaccination process is having a dose of vaccine waste,” said Bush. “We don't want to waste getting it into somebody's arm.”

However, going forward, officials are now “scrubbing” the appointments to align with the state’s distribution plan, as they are obligated to report back to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services on how many doses have been given out.

Like many hospitals in Montana, St. Vincent officials say their goal is to vaccinate as many members of the community as quickly and as safely as possible.

And when the phase 1A is done, St. Vincent plans to move forward with the next step to schedule vaccinations for” vulnerable residents” as outlined in Gianforte’s prioritization of phase 1B, according to those with St. Vincent.

“We continue to follow the state guidelines and ask for the public’s patience and support as we work with our state partners to administer the vaccine as quickly and safely as possible to our community,” said Douglas.