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Hospital Leaders, DeSantis Tout COVID Antibody Treatment

Tiffany Vasey, a nurse practitioner with TeamHealth, prepares an IV drip for monoclonal antibody treatment at Tampa General Hospital’s Global Emerging Diseases Institute (GEDI)  infusion center, treating patients with COVID-19. Photographed on July 22, 2021.
Daniel Wallace
Tiffany Vasey, a nurse practitioner with TeamHealth, prepares an IV drip for monoclonal antibody treatment at Tampa General Hospital’s Global Emerging Diseases Institute (GEDI) infusion center, treating patients with COVID-19. Photographed on July 22, 2021.

The treatment is proving to be an effective tool at preventing severe illness, but patients who test positive for COVID-19 have to get it early in order for it to work well.

Florida hospital leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis are urging more people to take advantage of monoclonal antibodies, a COVID-19 treatment that is proving to be very effective at preventing serious illness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently expanded its emergency use authorization for the therapy. It's meant for people who recently tested positive for the virus or are at high risk for developing severe COVID-19.

The treatment typically involves infusing lab-made antibodies designed to fight the coronavirus into patients through an IV, although the FDA now allows injections in some cases. Some health systems are offering it in hospitals, others in outpatient clinics.

Tampa General Hospital was the first in Florida to offer the treatment and has since given the antibodies to more than 1,600 patients since the FDA first issued an emergency use authorization for the drug cocktail last fall, according to Dr. Kami Kim, an infectious disease specialist with the hospital and the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine.

Daniel Wallace
Jahnitza Debbs, 22, has her vitals checked by Tiffany Vasey, a nurse practitioner with TeamHealth, before receiving a monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 from at Tampa General Hospital’s Global Emerging Diseases Institute on July 22, 2021.

Kim said most patients report feeling better within a day or two, or never develop symptoms at all.

"These are really, really important treatments, they help people recover more quickly, so if you can make people have less severe disease, obviously they're not going to end up in our hospital, in our ICU and potentially dying," she said.

Kim added that helping reduce the amount of virus in patients’ systems makes them less likely to pass it along to someone else.

She said similar medicines have been used in the past to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Patients receiving infusions can expect to have the IV in for about an hour, and then they have to wait another hour or so for hospital staff to monitor them for any adverse reactions. Then they go home to continue their quarantine as necessary.

The federal government covers the cost of the treatment, though some facilities around the country charge patients for administrating the medicine. Interested patients should consult with the facility offering the treatment and with their health insurance provider, if necessary. Tampa General provides it for free.

DeSantis, a vocal critic of COVID prevention efforts like mask-wearing, has been touting the therapy lately. He talked about monoclonal antibodies with hospital CEO’s from Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Broward County during a virtual roundtable Wednesday.

“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.

He held a press conference about the therapy at Tampa General the next day.

Speaking at the hospital, DeSantis cautioned time is of the essence when it comes to this treatment. Experts say patients only have about a week after symptoms appear for it to work well.

"If you test positive and kind of just wait and hope that it doesn't get worse and it starts to get very severe, by that time doing a monoclonal antibody treatment is probably not going to be something that's going to turn the tide," he said.

Stephanie Colombini
Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Tampa on Thursday to promote the monoclonal antibody treatment.

The FDA now allows people with weakened immune systems to get the treatment in some cases regardless of a positive test, since they don't respond as well to vaccines.

Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System in Miami, told the governor they are now offering it to organ transplant patients as a preventative treatment.

“That is a family group that is definitely in the profile of the immunosuppressed environment, and we’re prophylactically doing those patients and seeing a big result from that,” he said, acknowledging it’s only been for a couple weeks since the FDA only recently authorized this type of use.

Patients who test positive for the virus can get the treatment regardless of their vaccination status, but the rules about getting it ahead of that are more complicated.

In addition to allowing immunocompromised patients to use it preventatively, the FDA also permits unvaccinated patients who have been exposed to someone infected with the virus to do so, or who are likely to be exposed because they live or work in an institutional setting like a nursing home or prison.

Although federal health officials consider being unvaccinated a condition that puts someone at high risk for developing severe COVID-19, they stress that the antibody therapy is not meant to be used as a vaccine substitute.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is still the best way to prevent severe illness and curb the pandemic, health experts say.

While there seems to be ample supplies of the drug cocktail available now, it’s unclear how long that will last as word gets out about its effectiveness.

For example, Tampa General CEO John Couris said their clinic is doing 35-40 treatments a day and recently expanded operating hours to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

With Hillsborough County reporting thousands of new coronavirus cases a week recently, it would be extremely difficult to offer everyone the treatment within that week-long window of effectiveness, even with other health systems in the region like BayCare offering it.

Hospital leaders are continuing to urge people to get vaccinated and use other preventative measures to protect themselves so to reduce the number of cases in Florida.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are monoclonal antibodies?

These are lab-made proteins built to help create an immune response within the body that it may not be able to do on its own. In this case, the antibodies are designed to target the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Data suggests the treatment is effective at preventing severe illness and death.

Who qualifies for the treatment?

People ages 12 and older who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Immunocompromised individuals who have recently been exposed to someone infected with the virus or are likely to be exposed. Unvaccinated people who have recently been exposed to the virus or are at risk because they live or work in an institutional setting, i.e. nursing homes or prisons.

How much does it cost?

Treatment is free in most cases.

Where can I get it?

Some health systems are offering it in their emergency departments while others provide the treatment at outpatient clinics or through home health agencies. Contact your nearest health facility to find out. In some cases you need a prescription from your physician but some hospitals are writing the prescriptions for patients on site.

Can I use this treatment instead of getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

No. The treatment is not a vaccine substitute and everyone who is eligible for vaccination is still encouraged to get the shot, unless medical conditions prevent doing so.

Is this new technology?

No, according to Dr. Kami Kim with Tampa General Hospital. She explained similar medicines have been used for years when treating cancer and autoimmune disorders. Developers adapted the medical technology to produce antibodies geared toward fighting COVID-19.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.