BILLINGS — Although Yellowstone County is lagging behind the state and nation for full COVID-19 vaccinations, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Wednesday the vaccinated have helped keep the virus at bay in the county for the last three months.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. The higher it goes- and I think that baseline will actually drop lower than it currently is- but definitely the more people who get vaccinated, the safer the community is going to be, the more comfortable people are going to feel getting out and about and going to businesses and restaurants and other types of establishments," Felton said.
As of Wednesday, 42 percent- or 385,959 of Montana's eligible population- was considered fully vaccinated, compared to Yellowstone County at 40 percent, or 54,576 people fully vaccinated, according to the state's tracking map. Yellowstone also lags behind the U.S. vaccination rate, which hit 50 percent Tuesday.
People ages 12 and older can get a COVID-19 vaccine, after the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine for use in children earlier in the month.
With the help of the vaccine, Felton said Yellowstone County has reached a low "baseline" for new cases over the last three months: about 16 new cases per day.
"For the last three months, we’ve been at essentially the same level of cases. Essentially the same level of hospitalizations. Deaths have slowed down, blessedly. But I think this is kind of what our baseline is going to be," Felton said.
Top Five Fully Vaccinated Montana Counties
- Missoula County - 54%
- Deer Lodge County - 52 %
- Silver Bow County - 51 %
- Lewis and Clark County - 49 %
- Lake County - 48 %
Bottom Five Fully Vaccinated Montana Counties
- Garfield County - 21 %
- Powder River County - 22 %
- Wibaux County - 22 %
- McCone County - 25 %
- Carter County - 25 %
A total of 1,607 people have died from COVID-19 in Montana, including 268 dead in Yellowstone County.
As more people get vaccinated, Felton said he expects fewer people to become infected with COVID-19.
As demand has shrunk at the centralized, free community COVID-19 vaccination clinics, RiverStone staff have been putting on a larger number of smaller outreach clinics at businesses, church groups and community organizations to keep getting the vaccine into people's arms. So far, there have been about a dozen, Felton said.
“We’re really committed to getting our staff out there and getting people safely vaccinated," Felton said.
There are two free vaccination clinics scheduled to happen at schools near Billings next week. The first will be on June 2 at Lockwood High School from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., located at 1932 Highway 87 East. The second will be on June 3 at Elysian School from 10 a.m. to noon located at 6416 Elysian Rd.
The Yellowstone County Community vaccination site, now located at the Shrine Auditorium in Billings, will close at the end of the month. After May, RiverStone will offer vaccines to the public at scheduled clinics at various locations with the outreach clinics.
Many pharmacies and private health practices are also offering COVID-19 vaccinations, Felton said. Individual practices may vary, but the shots at the other locations will likely be to the patient, but the provider may charge the patient's insurance an administration fee.
A few weeks back, RiverStone saw success trying to entice people to get a COVID-19 shot with cold, hard cash. An anonymous donor gave the clinic's fundraising foundation $20,000 to get people to the clinic. Felton said on the first clinic, they gave money to 400 people. An additional 170 people showed up and didn't receive the cash, but still decided to get shots anyway. Felton said a second centralized clinic was put on where an additional 400 people were immunized and given some money.
Felton said there were about three attitudes people have regarding COVID-19 vaccines: receptive, hesitant and resistant. Receptive people have likely already gotten a vaccine. Hesitant people are on the fence, concerned about the time the vaccine has been out or other issues. Resistant people will likely take more convincing to get the shot, Felton said.
“Those folks are going to be a lot harder to turn into becoming vaccinated. So our focus really now is how can we get to those vaccine-hesitant population, educate them, help them feel more comfortable, make it easier to get vaccinated. That’s really where our focus is," Felton said.
Another reason to get vaccinated is the opportunity to travel, Felton said. Summer travelers should be aware of the COVID-19 restrictions at their destinations and whether a vaccine will be required. It takes two weeks after a person's last dose to be considered fully vaccinated.
"They are very safe. They are very effective. I’m hopeful that people will just get a little more comfortable with it. I think about: we’re about to finish school, but school is going to start again before we know it. People are going to want to go on vacation. There are some places that make it a little more difficult if people aren’t vaccinated. It really is a very safe and effective way to get a much greater sense of comfort when being out and about," Felton said.