MTN News: Tester pushes for more vaccine doses for VA distribution

by John Riley

HELENA – When just looking at the metrics, Montana is doing well when compared to the rest of the nation for COVID-19 vaccination distribution.

However, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, says more can and should be done–in particular for the nation’s veteran population.

“Absolutely we do not have enough vaccines,” said Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Unequivocally we need more vaccines in not only the VA community, in not only the Native American community, but everybody else too.”

Vaccination efforts by any agency ultimately depend on the number of doses they receive each week through federal allocation. The supplies to the State of Montana, Indian Health Service and Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) are all completely separate from each other.

The State of Montana is quickly approaching around 10 percent of the state’s 1.069 million person population being considered fully vaccinated, while MTVAHCS has only had the doses to fully vaccinate around 5 percent of the 47,000 veterans they serve.

MTVAHCS have indicated they could be getting more shots out if they had the available doses, and Tester agrees.

“I think the VA overall is doing a pretty darn good job, but the VA in Montana I give them high compliments for what they’ve done,” Tester said. “They’re doing a great job and they have the capacity to do a heck of a lot more. I think the big challenge with Montana VA and VA’s across the country, they just need more vaccines.”

MTVAHCS has been on the forefront of vaccination efforts, particularly for rural veterans. They’ve held 34 vaccine clinics for veterans in 11 communities across the state.

The organization has piloted a program using fixed wing aircraft to deliver vaccines to some of the state’s most rural areas. Their work is being modeled by other states to provide vaccines to their remote veterans.

Tester has been lobbying in his official capacity to get MTVAHCS and VA’s across the nation more doses, noting that many veterans have health conditions that are known to increase the risk of serious complications with COVID.

“These folks come back and they have injuries and they have problems that can contribute to this pandemic having a greater impact on them,” said Tester. “These vaccines have been incredibly useful in keeping people out of the hospital and dying.”

Following Tester’s push for more doses, the VA recently received 600,000 additional doses with hundreds of doses headed to Montana.

MTVAHCS received their first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine on December 22, a week after the first doses of the vaccine arrived in Montana. Staff say they’ve been working hard to get veterans vaccinated with their limited supply, and say they’ve been encouraging vets to get shots through their local clinics if a spot is available before MTVAHCS is able to reach them.

Tester hopes Congress will quickly pass the American Rescue Plan currently making its way through the Senate.

“We just need more vaccines and that’s why we’re working on this package right now, is to get more vaccines out to help places like Montana, our VA and Indian Country get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Tester. “At some point in time– and hopefully it’s sooner than later– there are going to be more vaccines that there are arms to be put in, but we’re not there yet.”

Tester added he believes more needs to also be done about educating people about the safety of the vaccines and removing some of that hesitancy some individuals seem to be having.

“I think I speak for everybody when I say we’re tired of this pandemic. We want to move on and we want to do it safely. We want to have our economy open up and it all starts with vaccines,” said Tester.

MTVAHCS has received additional vaccine doses in recent weeks for veterans, and will receive 600 doses of the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine this week for distribution.