Gov. Greg Gianforte delivers a press briefing about the state's COVID-19 response in the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 2.

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Up to 140,000 more Montanans will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine Monday thanks to an expansion of the state’s current distribution phase. 

As Montana begins to receive more doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including the recently approved one-shot Johson & Johnson vaccine, Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he is expanding vaccine eligibility in Phase 1B to include Montanans over 60 years old and others over 16 years old with pre-existing conditions like liver disease and asthma that weren’t previously included in Phase 1B. The new criteria take effect Monday. 

Categories covered under earlier phases and the newly expanded eligibility criteria have accounted for 90% of Montana deaths attributed to COVID-19 and more than 70% of the state’s hospitalizations during the pandemic, Gianforte said. 

Still, not all of the 100,000 to 140,000 people state officials estimated will now be eligible may be able to immediately receive a vaccine. That’s because some counties, especially those with higher populations, are still working to vaccinate the most vulnerable, said Bekki Kirsch Wehner, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services’ communicable disease control and prevention chief.

The next phase, which will expand eligibility to frontline essential workers who aren’t already eligible and incarcerated people, is still expected to start in late spring or early summer, Gianforte said. 

“The reality is that our supplies are very limited,” he said. “The best thing we can do for our neighbors is prioritize Montanans who are most at risk of serious complications or death from this virus.”

As of Tuesday morning, about 260,700 doses of the vaccine had been administered statewide, with 70,463 Montanans fully inoculated.

Regardless of what vaccine a Montanan is offered, they should take it, because they’re all effective in preventing death and other serious complications, said Gen. Matt Quinn, executive director of Gianforte’s COVID-19 Task Force. He also said the state has yet to confirm any cases involving COVID-19 variant strains.

While the state’s vaccine allocations have increased, Gianforte said that’s because the supply and production of new vaccines has been greater than expected, not because the federal government is increasing its per-capita allowance for Montana. 

“I was on a call earlier today with [Biden] administration officials. We made it very clear we did not think that we were getting our fair share,” he said. “I still think we’re owed more.”

In the meantime, Gianforte said, people waiting to be vaccinated under Monday’s phase expansion or in later phases should continue to practice protective measures like social distancing and wearing a mask. 

“I’m very encouraged by the trend lines we see in hospitalizations and new infections,” he said. “So I just ask Montanans to continue to look out for themselves and for their neighbors.”

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.