CONRAD — When Jeff Siembre woke up Thursday morning, he was not expecting to receive a COVID-19 shot, but as the 38-year-old trucker made his trek back to Cochrane, Canada, he saw a sign on the road signaling there were Coronavirus vaccines available ahead, so he pulled into the Conrad rest stop and received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
“I did it to protect my family,” Siembre said.
Siembre was able to get the vaccine due to a new program started by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. To sustain a steady flow of commerce between Canada and Montana, the two agreed to create a program targeting the vaccination of truckers.
Since it became operational on May 10, more than 500 people have stopped at the Mobile Community Vaccination Center. Staffed by clinicians from Bozeman’s Best Practice Medicine, the clinic is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Funding for the program is provided by the DPPHS and costs around $10,000 — taken from federal grant funds — per day to operate, according to Jim Murphy, an administer at DPPHS. But Murphy said that cost is a drop in the bucket compared to what it would cost to hospitalize someone who transmitted the virus.
Best Practice Medicine was founded in 2015 by CEO Ben King, Loren Deichman, and Joe Poole. It started as an EMS education program, but that changed when COVID hit, said Matt Macoy, spokesman for the company.
“Our years of work and dedication within Montana offering EMS education allowed us the financial freedom to reinvest in our organization and in Covid-19 response,” Macoy said.
Before COVID, the company employed about 52 people. Now it has a staff of around 400, with 365 of them authorized to be deployed throughout Montana and the country to help administer vaccines.
“At any given moment, several hundred of them are deployed, but it depends on the week,” King said.
On May 7, Montana and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding that kicked the program off. Gov. Greg Gianforte said vaccinating Canadian truckers will not only help secure the flow of commerce, but he also said he hopes it will help re-open the border.
“I had a conversation with the premier of Alberta, and we talked about this idea, and he was 100% supportive,” Gianforte said during a visit to the clinic Thursday. “I also asked him, ‘When are we are going to open the border?’ and he blamed it on Trudeau, which is unfortunate … I have many friends north of the border … many of them own homes here, and they usually bring their wallets, and they spend money down here,” he said. “And I think the vaccine distribution is the primary thing that we need to do to get back to a normal life, in all areas, including opening up the border.”
After showing it could safely and efficiently administer vaccines in Montana, Best Practice Medicine was granted multiple contracts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with the U.S. Forest Service to help with vaccine distribution across the country, Matt Macoy said.
In early April the company started deploying hundreds of people from its Vaccinate Administration and Support Taskforce to California, Texas, Nevada, and New York. In the last 10 weeks, the company has administered more than 750,000 vaccines.
As of now, there are three mobile vaccine units spread around Montana. Each mobile clinic costs about $65,000 and, besides the shell, are built in-house by the company. The centers can administer an average of 300 to 400 vaccines per day.
By August, Best Practice Medicine chief executive Ben King hopes there are 10 mobile centers deployed in Montana and throughout the country. After that, his goal is to go international.
“I believe it is ethical for us to not sit on those vaccines, but to provide them around the world. My prediction is that sometime in the next three to six months, there will be greater and broader support for helping to support international vaccine efforts,” King said.
While the program is geared toward truckers, anyone can get the vaccine at the center to get either the Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, or Moderna vaccine, which is proportioned out of the state’s federal allotment. No appointment or scheduling is necessary.
“It’s about as convenient as it gets,” Murphy said.
Munir Mansor, a 29-year-old Alberta trucker who hauls volcanic ash, took advantage of the convenience Thursday.
“I’m really excited because it’s harder to get the vaccine in Canada. They have a lot of rules and a lot of paperwork,” he said. “This means safety for my family and everybody I work with.”
Everyone who has come to the vaccination center has been very appreciative, said Mona Bradley, the center’s crew leader. “They’ve been very happy, they’re excited, they’re smiling … overall, it’s been very pleasant.”
The convenience is highly intentional, said King. “I believe that setting programs up like this that are highly effective and simple to access really makes it possible for people just to get the vaccine wherever they’re at.”
When COVID hit, the company started doing COVID testing and screening.
“Right when COVID started, we actually put together a team … we brought on a lot of EMTs that we had trained in the past, got them deployed out, we got word on Monday that we were going out, and by Saturday, we had about 100 people in the field,” Macoy said.
That involvement of the initial COVID response naturally led to its participation in the vaccination response and the company formed a Vaccine Administration and Support Taskforce. “This past year, we started thinking about the vaccine, and what we observed was that most of the conversation at that time was around getting the vaccines approved and shipped. There was not a lot of conversation around how are we going to get them into people’s arms,” he said. And that’s where the idea for the Mobile Community Vaccination Centers started.
The Late Majority
King said he believes the state and country are now in the stage of vaccinating the “late majority” of people who were not eagerly awaiting the vaccine but will likely get it if it’s easy to access.
“I believe we’re in that place, as a country, because we are seeing a declining engagement at these big sites that we’re staffing nationally,” he said.
Gianforte agreed. “We’re definitely shifting from a supply-constrained situation earlier in the year to now we are seeing a little softening in demand.” To help get more people vaccinated, he said his administration has invested in public service television ads and plans on making investments to make the vaccine easier to access.
“Vaccines are now available in pharmacies across the state, they’re available in your doctor’s office, and we’re working with large employers to go out where people are because we think the hurdle is really convenience,” he said.
Lowering barriers of access appears to lead to more people getting vaccinated, King said. Last week the company set up a mobile vaccine clinic at Ressler Motors in Bozeman and had to restock on vaccines twice. When they parked the mobile clinic in a Home Depot parking, just to run in and get supplies, people started lining up to get vaccinated, he said.
“You have to work harder to connect with them,” King said. Adding, “We believe that there’s tremendous value in going to ever to the Walmart parking lots, to the Home Depots to the Lowe’s.”
And King said the company is planning on expanding, “We believe it’s a national model.”