While the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines remains slow, Missoula County on Tuesday approved a contract to lease the old Lucky's Market at Southgate Mall to host a mass vaccination clinic in the near future.

The county is working to prepare the location and expects to have it ready for public use by the end of this week. But the launch date remains undetermined and hinges on the regular arrival of vaccines, which type of vaccine arrives, and how it needs to be stored.

“We can't state a public date yet. We didn't get vaccine directly this week. Our request wasn't fulfilled,” said Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy. “But another entity did, and the vaccine coordination team is looking at separating out the doses that we would need. We're poised to have people screen out, sign up and register as soon as we can confirm the date.”

Delays in both delivery and distribution have hindered the vaccine roll out in the U.S., placing the nation's vaccination plans weeks behind schedule.

Those delays have trickled down to Montana and Missoula County, where doses remain sparse. Leahy said the county receives just 1,500 a doses a week and has 20 registered providers, though not all providers can receive doses.

“With that small amount of doses, it's really only going to be initially those that can receive the large Pfizer doses where you can look at large clinics,” Leahy said, naming the two hospitals and the University of Montana, which have the freezer capabilities.

“Our doses will come out of that. The vaccine coordination team is looking at all those that will eventually be able to get doses.”

Missoula County will use the old Lucky's Market building as a vaccine clinic, at least when the vaccines become available.
Missoula County will use the old Lucky's Market building as a vaccine clinic, at least when the vaccines become available.

The lack of doses extends beyond Montana. Other states have said they're running out of doses, forcing them to cancel appointments or withhold the recommended second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

President Joe Biden has said his administration will undue the logjam and work to ensure 1.5 million shots are given each day. When that day comes and the vaccine becomes more available, the county's move to the mall will provide the clinical space needed to carry out a widespread public inoculation.

“It's a pretty large space and with the mass clinic setting, we'll be able to do more and faster,” Leahy said. “I can't tell you the maximum right now because we're really just focusing on how many doses we can get this week to run through. We will, we hope, get to a point where we know what that maximum is.”

Missoula health officials implemented an incident management team earlier this month to help coordinate the distribution of vaccines as they become more widely available.

Because various providers can register with the state to receive the vaccine, the county said it’s essential to monitor how many doses are available in the community at any given time.

The county's contract with Southgate Mall began on Monday and expires at the end of July. One-month's rent will cost $5,500 for a total of $34,000 over the term of the contract.

“At this point in time, as of today, we'll start to move some of the supplies we've been coordinating and securing to get in there, so we can at least start setting up prior to the vaccine clinic actually being up and running,” said Pam Morfitt, the health department's logistics chief.

Leahy said that initially, the vaccine clinic at the mall will operate six days a week, from Sunday to Friday. The mall has a prior contract on Saturday's with the winter market.

That contract expires at the end of April.

“We don't have the vaccines for mass clinics six or seven days a week at this time,” Leahy said. “As the vaccine becomes more available, we'd have that space up and ready to provide the immunizations. As of May 1, we'd have it seven days a week.”

While vaccine supply will ultimately determine the pace, providers will generally move into Phase 1b by the end of the month. Phase 1b includes residents 70 and older; American Indians and people of color 16 and older, as they may be at elevated risk for COVID-19; and those ages 16-69 with qualifying health conditions.

Missoula County residents who meet the 1a criteria but who did not get vaccinated can still be vaccinated as providers move through the phases.  For more information on eligibility and area providers, follow this link to the Missoula County dashboard