TAMPA — Florida accounted for 20 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. last week, averaging some 6,500 new infections every day.
For every one of those people, it’s too late to get the vaccine. But an increasing number of Florida patients considered at risk of suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms are getting an alternative treatment: an infusion of monoclonal antibodies.
The antibodies are administered through an IV for just an hour or two. The treatment, which was administered to President Donald Trump when he was hospitalized in October, works best for COVID-19 positive patients who developed symptoms in the previous 7 days.
Tampa General Hospital was the first in Florida to offer the treatment. The recent jump in Florida’s COVID-19 cases has sent the number of daily referrals from two to about 10 per day.
On one recent day last week, officials said 15 patients undertook the treatment in a special unit set up at the hospital’s Global Emerging Diseases Institute. The hospital is providing the treatment at no direct cost to patients but patients must be referred by a doctor.
Other Florida hospitals and clinics are reporting similar spikes in patient referrals. BayCare Health System officials reported treating more patients at 14 of their hospitals that administer the infusion. Among Lee Health hospitals and clinics in Lee County, referrals rose from an average of two per week to more than 44 in the week ending July 17.
Tampa General officials said the treatment has proven “highly effective” at keeping at-risk patients out of emergency rooms and intensive care units. It is considered appropriate for those over 55 who have underlying health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and respiratory illnesses, and for everyone age 65 and up.
Children can also receive the treatment if they are taking medication that suppresses their immune system or they suffer from diabetes, asthma, and other chronic respiratory problems.
The claims of success are backed by a joint study the hospital conducted in conjunction with the University of South Florida. Of 200 infected patients with mild or moderate symptoms who were deemed high risk for severe COVID-19, only 13 percent were hospitalized after receiving the antibodies. None died.
The study tracked a similar number of infected at-risk patients who either declined the treatment or were not referred for it. Forty percent ended up being hospitalized with 3 percent succumbing to the virus, the report states.
“No one should die from COVID-19; there is no reason to,” said Seetha Lakshmi, the Institute’s medical director.
But there is concern that too many infected people, especially younger ones, are waiting too long before they seek treatment. In some cases, they wait until they need to be put on oxygen, Lakshmi said.
The vaccines are safe and effective and people should use them, but she recognizes that the antibody treatment at least provides an option to vaccine skeptics, who she warns are putting themselves and others at risk — especially those who cannot receive the vaccine.
“I want people to know that at the end of the day, the ones who pay the price are the immunocompromised and vulnerable around us,” she said.
Like the coronavirus vaccines, the antibody treatment has been granted Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration to treat patients with COVID-19.
Vaccines help the immune system recognize the virus as a foreign body and to manufacture antibodies, but cannot treat active infections. The monoclonal antibody procedure provides a temporary infusion of laboratory manufactured antibodies that can fight infection that’s already present. The antibodies remain in the body for about a month.
Tampa General is anxious to spread the word about the antibody treatment in the hopes that it will be more palatable to vaccine skeptics.
“We have the magic bullet,” said Dr. Kami Kim, division director of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine. “We give those at a really high level so it should knock out the virus.”
Kim served as principal investigator for a couple of studies on the treatment. Tampa General staffers were among those who persuaded patients to take the then-experimental drug.
In the first few months, the hospital only administered it to patients considered “super high risk,” where the benefit outweighed the risk. Kim said a very small number of patients have had side effects such as allergic reactions comparable with other long-established monoclonal treatments used to treat cancer and illnesses that affect the immune system.
After that slow start, Tampa General broke the 1,000 mark for COVID-19 antibody treatments this week. Officials said that if cases continue to rise, the treatment will help ensure the hospital’s intensive care and emergency rooms are not overwhelmed.
“If we’re preventing people from getting sick enough to have to go to the hospital,” Kim said, “that’s a victory.”
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