TALLAHASSEE — As Florida reported another record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday hosted a roundtable with hospital CEOs from around the state. The topic? How to keep people out of the state’s rapidly filling hospitals.
The governor once again touted the state’s vaccination efforts, noting the shots have prevented the disease’s worst effects in the vast majority of cases. He did not venture into politically charged coronavirus controversies such as his executive order banning mask mandates in schools, which some local officials have begun pushing back against.
Instead, DeSantis focused on treatments that state health experts say are keeping infected Floridians alive.
“We hear a lot about non-pharmaceutical interventions, whether it’s restrictions or masks, or all this. We really don’t hear as much, at least publicly, about, if you do get infected, what are your options?” DeSantis said during the online discussion, which included CEOs from hospital systems in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, and Orange counties. “These monoclonals ... have had a really good track record.”
DeSantis was referring to monoclonal antibody treatments such as the drug cocktails developed by Regeneron and Eli Lilly. Former President Donald Trump got Regeneron’s antibody treatment when he was hospitalized with the coronavirus last October. At the time, Trump likened the treatment to a “cure” for the disease.
The hospital CEOs who spoke at the governor’s COVID-19 roundtable Wednesday did not go that far. But many of them said the treatment has shown extraordinary promise in treating some coronavirus patients — vaccinated or not. The antibody drug cocktails are most often used to treat patients who catch the virus early in its course. Patients who are severely ill from the virus are less likely to see benefits from monoclonal antibodies.
While some hospitals officials urged infected Floridians to come to their facilities to get the monoclonal treatments, at least one hospital official said Wednesday that his hospital system doesn’t have the capacity to offer the treatment at emergency departments because of a surge in severely ill coronavirus patients. That official, Orlando Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. George Ralls, noted his hospitals are giving out the treatments at some outpatient clinics, however.
On Wednesday, the state reported more than 12,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 to the federal government — another record-breaking figure. A lack of capacity is becoming a concern to hospitals across the state, as is a shortage of hospital staff. Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County on Wednesday announced it would suspend elective surgeries to preserve room for those hospitalized with COVID-19.
Tampa General CEO John Couris said although his hospital has a record number of coronavirus patients, local residents who get sick should not delay care. The hospital can accommodate them, he said.
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As COVID-19 hospitalizations hit record highs, Florida hospitals have gotten more aggressive about monoclonal antibody treatments. That’s in part due to a change in regulation: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently expanded the list of approved uses for monoclonal antibodies to include patients who have not yet contracted the virus, but who have been exposed and are at risk for the disease’s worst effects.
Jackson Health System CEO Carlos Migoya noted that his Miami-area hospitals have started giving the antibody treatment to transplant patients who are at high risk for contracting the coronavirus whether they have tested positive or not.
The monoclonal antibodies have been approved for treating COVID-19 by the Food and Drug Administration under that agency’s “emergency use authorization.” That’s the same authorization under which the agency has approved the coronavirus vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Normally, patients who have gotten the treatments have tested positive for the virus and have received a treatment referral from a physician. It takes about an hour for a doctor to administer the drug cocktail, and patients are monitored for an hour afterward.
“It’s about two-and-a-half to three hours in total that the patient is with us,” Couris said. “And then they go home, they quarantine. Twenty-four to 48 hours later, they really start to feel better. I would encourage people to use it. We have had great success.”
Tampa General has been touting these treatments for months. To date, the hospital has given out more than 1,000 doses of the antibodies at no direct cost to the patient.
Shane Strum, the CEO of Broward Health — and DeSantis’ former chief of staff — said his hospitals have begun offering the treatment to Floridians with coronavirus even if a patient walks in without an outside physician’s referral for the treatment.
“You want to do it immediately,” Strum said. “The best results that we’re seeing is those that test positive and come to us right away. Not only does it work well, and not only does it keep them out of the hospital, but they’re recovering a lot faster.”
Justin Senior, the CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance Of Florida, noted that doses of the monoclonal antibody treatments are difficult to manufacture. There is enough of the treatment in Florida today, but if this wave of the virus persists — and thousands of patients seek the treatment at once — it could pose supply problems, he said.
“Those are very very difficult treatments to scale,” Senior said.
They’re also pricey treatments. Last year, the federal government bought 300,000 doses of the Eli Lilly treatment for $1,250 per dose. Some facilities across the country may also charge patients for the cost of administering the drug.
However, Lilly noted in an October release that coronavirus hospitalizations, which the treatments are supposed to prevent, are much pricier: $22,000 per person on average.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment Wednesday about the cost of the monoclonal antibodies to the state.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.