State saving monoclonal antibodies for the unvaccinated

By: - September 21, 2021 5:19 pm
Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, at a Thursday press conference with Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, at a Thursday press conference with Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Apparently reacting to cutbacks from the federal government, Tennessee is recommending monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 be used for the unvaccinated as the state ranks at the bottom nationally for vaccination rates.

As reported Tuesday by The Tennessean, the Department of Health issued a statement saying, “Our recommendation to monoclonal antibody providers or individual facilities across the state is if they need to prioritize distribution of the treatment, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) guidelines are the recommended approach for that prioritization, including prioritizing those who are most likely to be hospitalized. Ultimately, this comes down to providers’ clinical judgment to ensure those most at risk are receiving this treatment. Providers across the state continue to receive supply of the treatment; however, we do not have an update on allocation for this week.”

Spokesman Bill Christian did not answer questions when asked whether the policy is affected by a shortage of monoclonal antibodies.

The policy comes days after the Biden Administration announced it was going to take control of monoclonal antibody shipments because about 70% of orders for the medicine was going to seven states, including Tennessee, where COVID-19 vaccination rates are the lowest in the nation.

To suggest withholding potentially life-saving antibody drugs from Tennesseans who have tried to protect themselves, their families and communities by being vaccinated is disingenuous and dangerous,

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus

Only 51% of eligible Tennesseans have received at least one shot of the vaccination as resistance remains strong statewide.

Critics contend the state’s weak vaccination numbers are the result of lukewarm efforts by the Lee Administration to push the shots. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally laid some of the blame at Biden’s feet.

“It is unfortunate that the Biden Administration has recently limited the supply of monoclonal antibodies to our state. I trust that Tennessee is getting maximum use out of the antibodies we are able to obtain. I am hopeful the supply to our will increase in the near future,” said McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican.

Yet even some Republicans are questioning Gov. Bill Lee’s policies, including state Sen. Richard Briggs who was quoted in a New York Times article Tuesday as saying the governor is “walking a tightrope” between setting strong pandemic policy and catering to a portion of his voter base that is anti-vaccination.

When the Biden Administration made its policy shift last week, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana reportedly were using nearly three-fourths of monoclonal antibodies in the nation, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with orders for the drug increasing more than two times in the last two months.

State Sen. Richard Briggs (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Richard Briggs questioned Gov. Bill Lee’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in a recent New York Times story. (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Tennessee and those other states have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and the Volunteer State is one of the hottest spots nationally for COVID-19.

Even though the state’s response appears to stem from the Biden Administration’s decision, state Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, blasted the Lee Administration on Tuesday for targeting the medicine for the unvaccinated.

“Once again, instead of leading the state of Tennessee out of the pandemic, Gov. Lee is pandering to extremists for political gains. To suggest withholding potentially life-saving antibody drugs from Tennesseans who have tried to protect themselves, their families and communities by being vaccinated is disingenuous and dangerous,” Dixie said in a statement. “While it is true that the unvaccinated, as a group, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 of the population, it’s the failure of the Lee Administration to get people vaccinated that puts them in that position and has us leading the nation in COVID infections. We don’t need the governor to try and pick and choose who gets critical medication. We need a governor who takes command and puts protecting people before politics.”

Gov. Lee has repeatedly said vaccinations are the most effective way to avoid COVID-19 and battle the pandemic. Yet, he has criticized President Biden’s vaccination mandates for businesses, calling it government “overreach.” Attorney General Herbert Slatery also sent the president a letter last week opposing his plan.

In addition, the governor signed an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school district mask mandates. Several school systems without mask requirements have run into problems this year, experiencing hundreds, if not thousands of COVID-19 cases among students, staff and teachers that forced them to close schools for a week to two weeks. At least 14 public school employees have died from COVID-19 this school year.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and a majority of Republican senators released a letter in August encouraging Tennesseans to be vaccinated. Yet other lawmakers are fighting vaccinations, including Republican Sens. Janice Bowling and Joey Hensley, a physician, who led a rally outside the Capitol last week against vaccinations and Biden’s mandates.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican who publicly encouraged people to get vaccinations, said Tuesday he isn’t surprised by the state’s new recommendation on monoclonal antibodies. 

Many Republican lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, have urged Tennesseans to get vaccinated, but several others, including Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma and Hohenwald Sen. Joey Hensley, have led rallies against vaccinations.

“The numbers would dictate that,” Haile said. “That’s kind of what would take place anyway, that you anticipate the folks that are vaccinated not to have a very severe case of it as compared to those that are not vaccinated.”

Haile declined to take a stance on the policy without doing more analysis. 

Tennessee sustained 1,500 more cases Tuesday from the previous day, hitting 1.19 million cases since the pandemic started 16 months ago. The state recorded 38 more deaths, pushing Tennessee’s COVID-19 fatality total to 14,450.

Hospitalizations dipped by 76 Tuesday, yet 3,274 people remain in hospitals. Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said two weeks ago most hospitals are using their surge plans to cope with an increase in COVID patients since the Delta variant began to move across the state.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.