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Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — Montana health officials deviated from national guidelines by including Native Americans, other people of color and residents of congregate care and corrections facilities in the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, the state health department announced Wednesday. 

The second phase is set to begin next month, after vaccinations are given to health care providers and long-term care facility staff and residents. 

Nearly 17,000 Montana residents have been vaccinated in the first two weeks of vaccine distribution, health officials said. Montana has between 45,000 and 60,000 health care providers. 

Vaccination of health care workers is expected to be complete by mid-January, while vaccination of long-term care facility staff and residents is expected to be done by the end of February, according to an updated plan released by the health department. 

Next in line are Montana residents 75 and older, frontline essential workers, residents of congregate care and correctional facilities, and American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications.

The second phase is expected to last from mid-January to mid-March and cover 90,000 residents.

People of color and residents of congregate care and correctional facilities are not listed in second-phase recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a Centers for Disease Control committee. The addition of the groups in Montana was made following advice from the state's 60-member COVID-19 vaccine coordination team, which includes representatives of hospitals, local health departments, tribal governments, long-term care facilities, correctional facilities and other groups.

"Data in Montana has shown us that these populations are at higher risk related to COVID-19 and severe outcomes so it was important to reflect that in Montana's vaccine plan," said Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. 

American Indians make up only 7 percent of Montana's population but 13 percent of identified cases in the state, according to a report released by the state earlier this month. 

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The third phase of vaccine distribution is expected to begin in mid-March and last through July. It will cover an additional 171,000 Montana residents, including those ages 65 years and older, adults with underlying medical conditions, and essential workers. 

The final phase is expected to launch in late spring or early summer for all Montanans 16 and older. 

Over 34,000 doses have been sent so far to 10 Montana hospitals in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula, along with 80 critical access hospitals and community health centers and three tribal governments that chose to receive vaccine from the state allocation. Five of Montana's eight tribal governments chose to get their allocation from the Indian Health Service, rather than the state. 

The state expects to receive 13,000 additional doses this week. Vaccine recipients must receive two doses to be inoculated. 

Gov. Steve Bullock, who will end his eight-year term on Monday, urged caution during the distribution process.

"It is incumbent on all of us to keep our friends, neighbors, and loved ones safe as we inch toward the widespread distribution of the vaccine," he said.

Montana health officials have confirmed 81,300 cases of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, including 629 new cases on Wednesday. The true number is likely far higher because not everyone is tested and some people can be infected without showing symptoms.

The state has reported 950 deaths linked to the virus. 

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some — especially older adults and people with health problems — it can cause more severe illness and death.

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