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Montana vaccine effort ramping up, hospitalizations decline

by AMY BETH HANSON Associated Press
| January 29, 2021 12:00 PM

HELENA (AP) — Montana's effort to vaccinate health care workers and those over age 70 against the coronavirus continues to ramp up while cases and hospitalizations decrease. But Gov. Greg Gianforte said Friday he would like to see the state get more vaccine each week.

So far, over 99,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Montana, Gianforte said, with just over 24,500 people fully immunized and about 50,000 having received their first of two doses. Those numbers do not include doses administered by Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Service clinics.

Montana is expected to get 15,600 first doses and 6,300 second doses of vaccine next week, said Greg Holzman, the state's medical officer. That's more than the state received this week, but Gianforte said that "falls woefully short of what we could use."

The state polled hospitals and county health officials who indicated they could effectively distribute at least twice that much in a week, he said.

Gianforte, a Republican, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking for an increase in vaccine allowance, arguing the state is not being rewarded for its efficiency in distributing vaccines.

Many states are frustrated over vaccine shortages. On Tuesday, Biden said the U.S. will ramp up deliveries of vaccines over the next three weeks by about 16%, which is the increase Montana will receive next week compared with the 13,525 doses allocated this week.

Montana averaged about 330 cases of COVID-19 per day over the past week, compared with about 1,060 during the worst seven-day period in November when hospitalizations rose to a high of 506. That surge prompted former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, to limit the size of public gatherings to 25 people and to limit bars, restaurants and casinos to 50% capacity and set a 10 p.m. closure time.

Gianforte lifted those restrictions on Jan. 14, and several counties have also lifted similar restrictions. A statewide mask mandate will remain in place until more vulnerable people are vaccinated and the legislature passes a bill to protect small businesses and nonprofits from lawsuits that could be filed by customers or clients who contracted COVID-19 on their premises as long as those entities are following health guidelines.

Gianforte credited the reduced cases and hospitalizations to Montanans taking commonsense precautions to protect their health, small businesses following public health guidelines and the hard work of health care workers.

The pandemic is not over yet, Holzman said, in encouraging people to continue to wear masks, be physically distanced, wash your hands and "get vaccinated when it's your turn."

Montana has reported over 93,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 1,227 deaths. The number of cases is believed to be far higher because not everyone has been tested and research shows some people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.