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Health officials say no one is skipping the vaccine line

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | February 7, 2021 12:00 AM

Throughout the nation and parts of Canada, reports of affluent individuals and others going to great lengths to skip the COVID-19 vaccine line have emerged.

In late January, for example, the Washington Post reported authorities in Canada’s Yukon discovered a wealthy couple from Vancouver had chartered a private plane to the isolated area so they could receive doses intended for vulnerable elders of the White River First Nation.

In another instance, the Associated Press reported Florida officials launched an investigation into an upscale nursing home after two news outlets discovered the facility administered vaccines to wealthy donors and country club members, in addition to its residents and employees.

But in the Flathead Valley, where a good number of well-off individuals reside, the Flathead City-County Health Department, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and local pharmacies and doctors say the local distribution scene is fairly impenetrable.

“There is no system out there right now locally that will allow the wealthy among us, or anyone else really, to get their vaccines before other more vulnerable populations do,” said Joe Russell, health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department. “We are working through a long waiting list of people that qualify under the governor’s plan and we are seeing to it that each of them will be vaccinated when it’s their turn.”

Russell, who is spearheading local distribution efforts at the Flathead County Fairgrounds and elsewhere, said he has not yet been notified of any attempts at vaccine bribery. He did say, however, occasionally people will show up to one of the valley’s appointment-only clinics and attempt to receive a vaccine on the spot — endeavors he explained seem more rooted in misunderstanding than anything.

“When that happens we don’t just give them a vaccine because they show up, we ask them to call the health department just like everyone else and schedule an appointment,” Russell said. “We are trying everything we can to keep people from gaming the system.”

WHILE THE health department is currently at the helm of administration efforts for Phase 1B of the state’s distribution plan, doses also have been shipped to Kalispell Regional Healthcare where high-risk health-care staff received their shots, or to local pharmacies so they can be transferred to staff and residents at long-term care facilities.

A hospital spokeswoman, as well as a manager at the Walgreens pharmacy in Whitefish who preferred to remain anonymous, both said their entities have not deviated from the governor’s distribution plan, nor have their staff been offered bribes of any sort.

“Our messages to all our audiences, including our donors and our practices, have been very consistent: KRH is following federal, state, and local guidelines regarding vaccine distribution and will not prioritize any group other than those stated in those guidelines,” Kalispell Regional Spokeswoman Mellody Sharpton said Friday.

The Walgreens manager said presently, their location does not have any doses to give and if they did, the pharmacy is under contractual guidelines to ensure those doses are allotted to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

HOSPITALS AND pharmacies aside, there also have been reports of people going through either concierge doctors or Direct Primary Care entities in hopes of snagging a vaccine early. Though they differ slightly, both types of health-care systems operate independently from hospitals and clinics in most cases, and instead of accepting traditional insurance, will offer a defined set of primary care services in exchange for periodic payments.

But according to local doctors, that method is a dead end for vaccine seekers in Flathead County as well.

Dr. Lexi Tabor-Manaker with Glacier Direct Primary Care in Kalispell said first and foremost, private practices such as hers are not slated to receive vaccines for distribution. She added that giving a shot to whomever they see fit is an ethical line local doctors are not likely to cross.

“There is no way to skip any line nor would any doctor I know try to do that for a patient, nor would any patient I have ever try such a thing,” she said. “My patients have quick access to me, which is the beauty of Direct Primary Care, but they get the same answer that the newspaper, internet and hospital-owned offices give to their patients. They get the health department phone number and I tell them to leave their info to get on the list [to be vaccinated].”

ANOTHER CONCERN that has emerged amid the shuffle of COVID-19 vaccines, for which thousands of Flathead County residents are currently on the waitlist, is the fate of any surplus doses.

As Montana enters into its third month of navigating the vaccine distribution process, Russell explained it should be expected that some doses will be administered to persons that fall outside of current tiers — something state health department spokesman Jon Ebelt said officials have encouraged local jurisdictions to do in order to not waste vaccines.

Occasionally someone who is on the schedule to be vaccinated won’t show up, Russell said. When that happens, health department staff attempt to contact other Tier 1B individuals on the waitlist, but if they are unable to administer it in a timely fashion to someone within that pool, they may turn to vaccinating others that fall further down the line.

Russell said those decisions, though rare, largely boil down to the shelf life of the vaccines.

For example, the Pfizer vaccine will last several months when held at extremely low temperatures, but once it begins to thaw, the dose must be used within five days, and once the vaccine is punctured, it’s only a matter of hours until it expires.

“We don’t want to just be sitting on a thawed vaccine. To be honest, that would be pretty stupid on our part,” Russell said. “Hardly anyone cancels, but when they do, we have that extra dose and it has to be used.”

Surplus is being experienced elsewhere, too.

Gov. Greg Gianforte recently announced nearly 20,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine that went unused by Walgreens and CVS pharmacies will be redistributed across the state.

The pharmacies had entered into a federal contract allowing them to vaccinate staff and residents at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. According to Ebelt, the state health department received permission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reallocate the doses.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com