Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

BUTTE — Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday announced a statewide effort to expand the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments as Montana continues to see high rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, primarily among unvaccinated residents.

Speaking at a press conference at St. James Healthcare in Butte, Gianforte announced the opening of a new 12-person clinic funded by the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services and independently operated by a third-party contractor, Colorado-based Jogan Health Solutions. While hospital administrators said they already offer monoclonal antibody treatments to patients, low staffing and high numbers of patients sick with COVID-19 have created an unsustainable burden on hospital resources. 

“This clinic will reduce the strain on St. James, reduce hospitalizations and open up ICU beds for the most critical patients at St. James,” Gianforte said, adding that the pilot clinic would also be open to patients referred from other towns. “Most importantly, it will provide more Montanans access to early treatment, like the elderly and those with severe underlying health conditions.” 

Several types of monoclonal antibodies have been authorized for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration for patients deemed particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The treatment is considered most effective in the days immediately after a patient starts showing symptoms, but requires roughly half an hour for an infusion and additional staff time to monitor patients for adverse side effects. 

“Our bodies naturally make antibodies to fight infection. These treatments mimic our immune system’s response to SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID 19,” said Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek Thursday, Montana’s acting state medical officer, adding that federal supplies of monoclonal antibodies have been distributed to 41 Montana counties so far. Last week, Cook-Shimanek said, the state received about 2,000 courses of various antibody treatments.

Officials said the cost of the treatment will vary depending on a patient’s medical insurance.

Gianforte, DPHHS Director Adam Meier and other medical professionals present at the press conference unanimously stressed that antibody treatments, while beneficial, are not a substitute for authorized COVID-19 vaccines. 

“Vaccination remains central to the intermediate and long-term pandemic response,” Cook-Shimanek said. “Monoclonal antibodies are important for preventing hospitalization and death. They are not a replacement for vaccinations.”

Roughly half of Montana’s entire population has been inoculated against the virus, a percentage that has failed to stem a continuing late-summer wave of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths statewide. According to a record of the governor’s COVID-19 briefing this week, COVID hospitalizations are up 9% over last week, with an average of 485 patients hospitalized with the illness each day. 

Gianforte has for several months gently encouraged Montanans to consult with their physicians about receiving the vaccines. Critics have said the governor’s pro-vaccine message should be more assertive and diligently distributed to Montanans who remain hesitant or outright opposed to the vaccines.

On Thursday, Gianforte did not indicate any plans to change the state’s overall COVID strategy and reiterated his belief that government should not mandate vaccinations

“We’ll continue to encourage Montanans to talk to their medical providers and get vaccinated. I would like to see it go faster,” Gianforte said, adding that the government’s proper role is to “educate, communicate, not to mandate.”

“The people that have the most credibility with vaccine hesitant people are their peers and the medical community. Not government officials,” he said. “So I can do all that I want, but we need friends to tell friends that they got it.”

The Thursday press conference directly dedicated to pandemic issues was Gianforte’s first in roughly two months. Before that, Gianforte held frequent COVID-19 press conferences until April, when the state Legislature adjourned. In June he rescinded Montana’s declared state of pandemic emergency. 

Addressing reporters this week, however, Gianforte indicated his messaging about vaccine efficacy will carry on.

“I’m going to continue to be very clear, and I’m encouraging Montanans to do exactly what I did. Talk to your medical provider and get vaccinated,” Gianforte said. “Vaccines are safe and effective, and it’s the best way to protect yourself and your family.”

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.