Opinion

Jaco: St. Louis’s newest COVID treatment is an expensive right-wing favorite

The choice seems simple: Prevent COVID with a cheap vaccine that’s being offered free, or wait until people catch COVID, and then treat it with an expensive drug cocktail that has to be slowly pumped into your body through an IV.

Guess which way Missouri’s decided to go?

After almost two years of downplaying social distancing and masks (remember Gov. Mike Parson complaining about “those dang masks”?), and months of questioning vaccines, Missouri’s ruling GOP has decided to hand over millions of federal taxpayer dollars to a Texas company for an expensive anti-COVID treatment, eventually setting up three “treatment centers” in the St. Louis area.

Missouri could have been sane, followed the science, and gotten ahead of the pandemic by requiring masks, urging people to be vaccinated and implementing vaccine requirements for indoor spaces. Instead, it went with Trump-style rage, denial, contempt for science, and anti-vax propaganda. The results are all around us.

School has started again, and hundreds of students in St. Charles’s Francis Howell School District are already quarantined. As the Delta variant surges, more than 250 people have died from COVID in regional St. Louis hospitals in just the first three weeks of August. Area hospital ICUs are over 90 percent full.

COVID vaccines are offered free and have a retail price of about $20 a dose. The expensive IV infusion treatment the state’s using federal tax dollars to pay for runs about $1,200 a treatment and can be used only after someone has already come down with the early stages of COVID.

This isn’t to say the treatment, using monoclonal antibodies, doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. The antibody infusion works amazingly well in clearing up COVID and keeping people out of the hospital. But it has to be administered in the very first few days of COVID. And the story of why the state is focusing on treating the unvaccinated who have COVID rather than preventing it comes down to conservative tribal politics.

First, the basics. The state has opened two “treatment centers” using monoclonal antibodies in the St. Louis region. One is at Mercy Hospital in Festus. The second, the only one in St. Louis city or county, is on the North Side at 2125 Bissell Street in the College Hill neighborhood, inside a gym run by the Urban League. It’s open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

To get in, you need a referral from a doctor. So first, you have to feel lousy. Then, you have to get in to see a doctor. Then, you have to get a confirmation that, yep, you have COVID. Then, you can to to the treatment center.

Once there, an IV will be inserted in your arm. The monoclonal antibodies take anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes to empty from the bag into your body. After that, clinical trials and real-world experience show most people’s symptoms will clear up in seven days or less. The list price of the infusion is about $1,200. The treatment will be offered free, with federal taxpayers footing the bill thanks to money from the American Rescue Act.

Given that Missouri has spent years slashing public health budgets, and the GOP philosophy that there’s nothing the government can’t do that can’t be done better, for a profit, by a private company, the treatments will be administered by a Texas company called SLSCO.

The company, which started out as Sullivan Land Services Company, got a $70 million contract to build two emergency hospitals in New York in 2020. By the time they finished them, the worst of the COVID surge had faded, and the two facilities saw a total of 21 patients.  The company also scored $350 million to build part of Trump’s border wall, in part because the three Texas Sullivan brothers who own it are major Republican donors.

But since over 90 percent of St. Louisans who would get COVID and use the treatment centers are unvaccinated, and each infusion treatment costs taxpayers 600 times what a vaccine costs, why didn’t state GOP offices put on a full-court press to endorse vaccines, convince their un-vaxed base, and stress to them, day in and day out, that vaccines are the best way to stop the pandemic?

Ideology. Specifically, pro-Trump ideology.

Remember, in October 2020, when then-President Trump became desperately ill with COVID after months of mocking the pandemic and the scientists fighting it? He was given a then-experimental monoclonal antibody infusion, and immediately started word-salading on Twitter that it was a “cure.”

Since then, the same Trump base that doesn’t trust vaccines has gone all-in with the infusion treatment, partly because of Trump’s endorsement and partly because the drug is made by Regeneron.

Regeneron’s co-founder, George Yancopoulos, became a hero to the alt-right after a June, 2020, commencement speech at a New York high school (delivered less than a month after George Floyd’s murder) in which he declared that “all lives matter” and that police had become “scapegoats.”

Since then, COVID-minimizing vaccine-“hesitant” governors from Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida to Tate Reeves of Mississippi and (wait for it) Mike Parson of Missouri have become huge fans of Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody infusion which, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, doesn’t yet have full FDA approval.

The Regeneron treatment works very well. It’s extremely valuable for people who can get it in the early stages of COVID, preventing both hospitalizations and deaths. It can be extremely useful in states where COVID is surging out of control among the unvaccinated.

But that’s the problem. COVID’s Delta variant is exploding in states with low vaccination rates. And none of this would be happening if the ruling Republican parties in those states had taken masks and vaccines seriously. Instead, officials there dealt in political stunts, showing contempt for masks and lockdowns, and refusing to make major, sustained, serious efforts to get everyone vaccinated.

So the state that refused to expand Medicaid in defiance of a statewide popular vote, refused to impose a mask mandate, downplayed COVID by underestimating both cases and deaths, and cast doubt on vaccines is now willing to spend other people’s tax money to give expensive infusions to stop COVID cases that should have never happened in the first place.

Like they say, freedumb isn’t free. 

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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