TAMPA — While the omicron variant is believed to be less deadly than delta, it’s far more contagious. So it’s still a deadly threat to those at high-risk from COVID-19: The elderly, immune compromised and those with pre-existing conditions.
That makes COVID-19 an even greater concern at Tampa General Hospital. The hospital performs about 1,000 transplants a year, and the recipients are immunocompromised because they must take drugs that suppress their immune systems for the rest of their lives to prevent their bodies from rejecting donated organs. Those being treated for certain cancers are also vulnerable.
So the hospital is the ideal place to give a new medication specifically designed to protect those with weakened immune systems from catching the virus.
Evusheld is an injection of long-acting antibodies that boosts the body’s ability to fight off COVID-19 that was developed by pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca. It received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 8 for use on patients ages 12 and up.
The drug should lower the risk of catching or developing severe COVID-19 symptoms for at-risk individuals including transplant patients who, even when vaccinated, have low levels of antibodies, said Tampa General chief medical officer Peggy Duggan.
“I think this is a big game-changer more than anything because of the risk they face,” she said. “That group pf patients right now have very limited options.”
Tampa General is one of 11 Florida hospitals to get Evusheld, but there are questions about how state officials are distributing the drug. The Miami Herald reports that the state gave doses to a medical concierge group in Broward County before it was given to that region’s transplant centers and cancer institutes.
Florida hospitals have received 3,000 doses of the drug so far, Duggan said, but she anticipates additional supplies will be made available.
The U.S. government initially purchased 700,000 doses, but announced Thursday that it will buy another 500,000 doses, which should be delivered in the first quarter of this year, according to Reuters. The Department of Health and Human Services controls the supply of the drug.
Which at-risk patients get the scarce drug at Tampa General is determined by a group of hospital doctors, Duggan said.
The medication works similarly to monoclonal antibodies, a treatment given intravenously to those recently infected with COVID-19. But Evusheld is different, Duggan said, in that it’s given as a preventative shot rather than to fight an active infection.
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“That protection is most important,” she said. “Once you have the infection, there are negative impacts that can affect the health of the vulnerable.”
The drug is urgently needed as the omicron variant drives a record number of infections in Florida. That has made it increasingly difficult for at-risk people to stay socially distanced and reduce their risk of infection. More than 11,100 Floridians infected with COVID-19 were in hospital as of Thursday, according to the Florida Hospital Association.
Tampa General is the region’s leading transplant hospital and has conducted research into how well COVID-19 vaccines work for patients taking medication to suppress their immune systems. Even though they may be fully vaccinated, Duggan said, the hospital’s research shows they still have low levels of antibodies, meaning they have limited protection against the virus.
That’s why they need to wear masks to protect themselves, and so do those around them.
“We would recommend people continue to mask and take all those safety precautions because they are our most vulnerable population,” she said.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More coronavirus coverage
OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.
KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
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