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VA rolls out COVID-19 vaccine for Montana veterans

By PHIL DRAKE | Independent Record | Published: January 14, 2021

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(Tribune News Service) — Mike Sass said getting his vaccination shot to battle COVID-19 didn't hurt at all.

Not one little bit.

But then again, he served in the Army Air Corps in World War II.

The Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System lined its hallways at Fort Harrison with Helena-area vets.

Catherine Beall, public information officer, said the VA was offering doses first to veterans 85 and older and then to vets 75 and older.

"I am glad to get it, but at my age it may be a waste of time," the 95-year-old Sass joked.

Veterans sat in hallways and side waiting rooms as numbers were called out by workers who seemed to be in constant motion. Dr. Judy Hayman, executive director of Montana VA Health Care System, said 75 veterans were inoculated within the first hour.

"Everybody I have talked to is thrilled," Hayman said, adding Montana has received nearly 2,000 doses for the first round of inoculations and 1,000 doses so far for the second required shot.

Montana has 47,000 veterans enrolled within the health care system. Officials have said their goal is to inoculate all members. Vaccines are available by appointment only to vets enrolled in Veterans Health Administration health care. Any vet not enrolled should call (406) 447-7350 to see if they are eligible.

On Wednesday, Montana reported 87,630 cases of coronavirus, with 81,676 of those recovered, and 1,069 deaths.

The Montana VA received its first shipment of the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine on Dec. 23, and inoculated front-line workers. A few days later they took some to staff and vets at the Montana VA's Community Living Center in Miles City — the Montana VA's only nursing home.

Wednesday's events were the first clinics for veterans. More clinics will be held elsewhere as vaccine becomes available.

Veterans at Fort Harrison had to wait 15 minutes afterward before they were allowed to leave. Many were to be shuttled back to their cars. The VA had people doing traffic control in order to help people find a place to park.

Hayman said the coronavirus vaccination effort was a big task for the Montana VA to perform.

"And the fact we we're giving shots for COVID-19 raises it to another level," she said.

Loren Davis, 86, of Helena, was one of those waiting after getting his shot on Wednesday.

"It was good," he said of the experience. "They're good people."

Davis, who served in the Army in the '50s, said the needle hit the muscle and gave "a little sting."

He said he had some apprehensions about getting the shot, but believed everything had been tested enough and expected no aftereffects.

"I would say there is nothing to worry about," he said.

Norman Witherbee, 87, of Helena, said he didn't feel his shot and had questioned the person on the other end of the needle.

"I didn't think he did it," the Navy veteran said.

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