Treatment can help high-risk COVID-19 patients stay out of hospital, and it's free

For weeks, Northeast Georgia Medical Center has been packed with COVID-19 patients.

Monday afternoon, the Gainesville, Georgia, hospital had 193 coronavirus-positive patients filling overflow ICU beds.

To try to head off more, the health system is giving monoclonal antibody treatments to patients at increased risk of severe illness at its family and internal medicine locations and urgent care centers.

Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, the medical director for infectious diseases at Northeast Georgia Health System, says NGHS has given 2,857 monoclonal antibody treatments using Regeneron's Regen-COV treatment in outpatients settings.

"We continue to review the data, and the treatment, if given within 7 days, continues to be very promising in reducing COVID severe disease and preventing hospitalizations," Dr. Mannepalli says. 

NGHS has posted an online assessment tool to help determine if you are eligible for the treatment. Among the criteria, you must have a positive PCR COVID-19 test, have an underlying condition that raises your risk for severe complications of the virus, be symptomatic and seek treatment within 10 days of the onset of your symptoms.

Dr. Mannepalli says they prefer patients come in as quickly as possible, once they have tested positive for the virus.

"We really want to aim for 7 days, but we can give this monoclonal antibody for up to 10 days," she says.

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In its primary care and urgent care settings, Northeast Georgia Health System patients are given four back-to-back monoclonal antibody injections in either their abdomen, back, arm or thigh, using a small needle that is similar to a needle used for an insulin injection.

Other providers and hospitals are giving the treatment through an IV infusion.

Both approaches require about a 1.5-hour visit, which includes about a 60 minute observation period after the treatment.

Dr. Felipe Lobelo, director of epidemiology and public health for Kaiser Permanente Georgia, says the treatments are designed to be given early in the infection process before the virus has time to begin to replicate and take over the lungs.

The antibodies, produced in a lab to mimic the body's immune system, help our natural defense system recognize and fight off the virus, he says

"They give you a fighting chance," Dr. Lobelo explains.  "It's sort of like if you're in a race against the virus, the monoclonal antibodies sort of gives you a few seconds ahead."

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Georgia now has 136 antibody infusion sites, according to the Department of Public Health.

"It's not a silver bullet," Dr. Lobelo says. "It's much, much, much more important to be vaccinated.  But, in case you're not vaccinated, or even if you have been vaccinated and have a breakthrough infection, earlier in the course of the disease, monoclonal antibodies can help reduce the viral load and reduce the risk of hospitalization up to 70%."

Risk factors that qualify for monoclonal antibody treatment include:

  • Being overweight (BMI 25–30)
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure
  • An immunocompromising condition or immunosuppressive treatment
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as cerebral palsy
  • Medically complex conditions such as genetic or metabolic syndromes and severe congenital anomalies
  • Medical-related technological dependence, such as a tracheostomy, gastrostomy, or positive pressure ventilation unrelated to COVID-19

"Those are all high-risk conditions that we know increase the risk of severe COVID and monoclonal antibodies are an option," Dr. Lobelo says.  "So, you should talk to your primary care provider when you're diagnosed with COVID, because there are many hospitals in Atlanta and Georgia that are offering that option, and it's actually free.  The drug, at least, is free; the government is paying for it."

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