Yellowstone County residents reached several milestones Thursday on their way to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic: the Shrine Auditorium hosted its last batch of first-dose vaccinations; the county health department held its first clinic offering cash; and parents who have waited anxiously for months were able to get their children inoculated.
With both kids aged 12 to 15 becoming eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and a crisp $50 bill for the first 400 people to get their shot, the auditorium also saw people line up around the building for the first time since doses became available.
“With the new [COVID-19] variants that are coming out now, and we’re seeing that they’re worse in younger patients, both as a parent and a physician…it just makes me want to protect my kids,” said Dr. Shelly Bayse, a Billings Clinic physician who brought two of her kids in for their first dose Thursday.
About 59% of adults in the United States have received at least one vaccine dose as of Wednesday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just over 35% of the country’s population is now considered to be fully vaccinated, with the number of vaccines administered amounting to nearly 265 million doses.
President Joe Biden announced earlier this month as the nation passed 200 million doses that his administration has set a goal of 70% of adults in the United States getting their first vaccine by July 4. CDC data has the current daily average of vaccines administered at about 690,000, down from a peak last month of 1.9 million per day.
Biden met with a group of governors on how to boost the number of inoculations, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Ideas implemented by local officials have included cash incentives for getting a shot and setting up vaccination sites at concerts and Major League Baseball games. Ohio officials announced Thursday that those getting vaccinated will be entered into a $1 million weekly lottery.
In Montana, incentives have included free vaccines at local breweries and scholarship funds for high school students who roll up their sleeves. The Montana Standard reported Wednesday that Town Pump will launch a cash giveaway amounting to $35,000 weekly to Butte-Silver Bow residents getting inoculated.
As of Thursday morning, Yellowstone County tracked just over 108,000 doses administered to residents. A total of 127,729 residents were eligible until people aged 12 to 15 were approved to receive the Pfizer vaccine, according RiverStone Health. The county health administration reported Thursday that just under a third of the county’s entire population is considered to be fully vaccinated.
Those figures do not include vaccinations allocated to pharmacies directly through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, and at clinics hosted by the VA and the Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center.
RiverStone Health has tracked those who have received vaccinations at its centralized clinics at Cedar Hall and the Shrine Auditorium since the middle of March. When the Yellowstone County Unified Health Command launched the clinics, vaccinations by appointment peaked during the week of March 28 through April 3, with 8,790 doses administered.
Pat Zellar with RiverStone Health said during April, when anyone aged 16 or older could sign up, clinics still had as little as 20% of their appointments being filled. That prompted officials to open up the clinics to walk-ins. The county hasn’t ordered any vaccines for the past two weeks, she said, but still has an ample supply of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines to distribute.
RiverStone Health announced Tuesday that it would set up free walk-in clinics at any location where at least 11 people will commit to getting a vaccine. Zellar said a number of clinics are already slated through May, and many more are expected throughout the summer.
Zellar, who didn’t know what to expect as far as the turnout for Thursday’s walk-in clinic, said she counted about 120 people lined up in front of the Shrine Auditorium before it opened at 10 a.m. Within an hour, 200 people were vaccinated.
“The vaccine is the surest and fastest way for all of us to get back to a normal way of life, and I think everybody yearns for that…I look at this crowd, and they all have that hope in their hearts,” said Kristie Asay, the executive director for the RiverStone Health Foundation, the charitable non-profit partnered with RiverStone Health.
Speaking at the auditorium, Asay told The Gazette that the anonymous donor committed $20,000 last week, and left the task of distributing it up to the foundation and the UHC.
Dr. Kathryn Lysinger, a pediatrician with Billings Clinic, learned that her 12-year-old son Jacob would be eligible for a vaccine before being told that it would get him $50. She’d watched the trial process for the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness in those aged 12 to 15 for weeks, and immediately began searching for an available dose when the CDC advisory panel recommended the vaccine Wednesday.
“As pediatricians, we are so familiar with vaccines and we are so comfortable with them and know that they can be an important tool in medicine. We knew that the end of this was going to come from vaccination…It was beyond our wildest imaginations that it would be so effective,” she said while waiting next to her son after his inoculation.
A clinical trial of 1,129 children showed the vaccine to be 100% effective in preventing an infection.
Lysinger said the primary effects of getting vaccinated will be preventing infections in all children, especially those with chronic illnesses like diabetes, cystic fibrosis and lung disease. The secondary effects will be the end of quarantines, which caused her own son to spend a month of his school year at home.
“It makes life more normal again,” said Elijah Bayse, 14, the son of Dr. Shelly Bayse, who received his first Pfizer shot along with his 12-year-old sister.
Although they’re free to spend their $50 however they please, Shelly Bayse said their getting vaccinated is a way for them to be a part of the solution to the pandemic. In a subsequent email to the Gazette, she wrote that as a physician for adults and in pediatrics during the past year, she’s had firsthand experience in the fight against the virus.
“I have unfortunately watched as multiple patients and their families have suffered and died from this disease. I have also watched my colleagues endure the physical and emotional trauma of feeling helpless, as we feel like bystanders without a meaningful way to intervene or alter the course of COVID in our patients’ lives."
"To be able to take one step, a meaningful action, toward alleviating the burden of this disease by getting my children vaccinated feels liberating. It feels like we are making a road back to something normal for our family and our community,” she wrote.
The CDC also announced Thursday that those who are fully vaccinated can stop wearing the masks that have become ubiquitous over the past year outside in crowds, and in most cases indoors.