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How Veterans Affairs Is Helping Rural Vets Get The COVID-19 Vaccine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The VA is trying to figure out how to fairly distribute the very limited amount of coronavirus vaccines it has been given for veterans. That is only about 1.5 million doses so far for the roughly 9 million veterans they serve. The VA is making a special effort to reach veterans in rural areas, but the nationwide vaccine shortage means lots of vets are frustrated and feeling left behind. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Seventy-five.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Inside a massive building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in northwest Montana, VA workers call the numbers of veterans who were sitting in spaced-out folding chairs. Eighty-two-year-old former Army clerk typist Carole Beaudion, in a flowered mask and purple puffy vest, is elated to be getting a COVID vaccine.

CAROLE BEAUDION: It's kind of like a get-out-of-jail-free (laughter) card.

BOLTON: The VA is setting up pop-up clinics like this one for rural vets, many who live hundreds of miles from the nearest VA clinic or hospital that can store COVID-19 vaccines. But just like in big cities, not just any vet can show up and get a shot. Judy Hayman, who's in charge of Montana's VA Medical Center, says they are using electronic medical records to reach out to the most vulnerable.

JUDY HAYMAN: So we were able to pull the data and prioritize them based on age and the other medical risk factors. So that's - we're calling to schedule appointments.

BOLTON: At this point, the VA is only offering vaccines to those age 75 and older and those with certain underlying medical conditions. That's frustrating people like 68-year-old Terry Baker, a Vietnam combat veteran who says he is still recovering from a COVID-19 infection in late November.

TERRY BAKER: I still lack oxygen. And I'm on oxygen at night. And I have COPD to begin with, so my breathing's not good.

BOLTON: COPD is a serious respiratory disease, but VA officials say plenty of vets older than Baker also have those ailments. Baker is hoping he'll be able to get vaccinated through the county.

BAKER: Whoever can get it to me first is who I'm going to do it with.

BOLTON: He says time is of the essence as he's scared he wouldn't survive a second round with COVID-19. Gary White with the Montana American Legion says many vets are getting on any vaccine waiting list they can.

GARY WHITE: You know, they're trying to be patient, waiting for phone calls from the VA, but they just feel like they're out there on their own right now.

JON TESTER: It troubles me to think that somebody's got to go to the private sector to get their vaccine.

BOLTON: That's Montana Senator Jon Tester, the new Democratic chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He's mad there's not more vaccine available.

TESTER: The VA has stepped up, and they're doing the job. And they're doing the job right. And they need to be patted on the back for that. But Operation Warp Speed from the previous administration has been an abysmal failure.

BOLTON: Nationally, the VA has given shots to about 7% of its roughly 9 million enrolled vets.

TESTER: But I'm here to tell you the fact that we are the first of February, and the numbers that I've got, we're not where we need to be.

BOLTON: Back at the Kalispell Clinic, the Montana VA's Judy Hayman expects the agency's vaccine allocations to increase and is asking vets to be patient.

HAYMAN: So the best thing veterans can do is answer the phone when we call because if we don't get hold of you, we'll go on to the next veteran.

BOLTON: The VA's national office says its weekly allocation of about 125,000 shots likely won't increase until March.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Kalispell, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 8, 2021 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous headline and Web introduction to this report incorrectly called the Department of Veterans Affairs by its previous name, the Veterans Administration.