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Tampa COVID Antibody Treatment Site Sees Long Lines

Health workers prepare injections of Regeneron at the monoclonal antibody treatment site in Tampa. Patients receive four shots of the antibody cocktail.
Health workers prepare injections of Regeneron at the monoclonal antibody treatment site in Tampa. Patients receive four shots of the antibody cocktail.

Health officials in Hillsborough County are urging people to make appointments and to prepare to spend about half a day at the site.

The new monoclonal antibody treatment site in Tampa had closed to walk-in COVID-19 patients within hours of opening on Friday.

The site, located at Kings Forest Park near the Florida State Fairgrounds, was opened as part of a statewide effort to expand availability of the therapy in an attempt to curb COVID hospitalizations in Florida, which have consistently hit all-time highs in recent weeks.

The antibody cocktail produced by drugmaker Regeneron is proving to be an effective tool at preventing severe COVID-19, particularly among high-risk individuals with weakened immune systems. But it has to be administered early while patients still only have mild-to-moderate symptoms.

Patients at the Tampa site can expect to receive the therapy in injection form, not through an IV infusion like most hospitals are using.

Kevin Watler, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough, said it involves one shot in each arm as well as one on each side of the stomach, so four injections total.

Patients then have to sit for an hour while health workers monitor them for adverse reactions before they're cleared to go.

The treatment site at the Florida State Fairgrounds includes numerous chairs for people to sit and wait. Officials caution the entire process takes several hours.

"The longest thing is going to be, once you arrive, the wait time between that time and when you get seen by the medical personnel," Watler said, suggesting people prepare to spend about half a day at the site.

"This is not a quick, in-and-out thing," he said.

Watler acknowledged staff were still working out kinks on the first day and that they hope to streamline the process in the coming days as they get used to the flow.

A large number of chairs were set up inside the facility so most patients could sit while they waited, and Watler said officials are working on developing a system where people can sit in their cars and be notified via phone call or text when it's their turn to be seen.

This is all to avoid situations like what was reported at the Jacksonville site earlier this week, where patients too sick to stand in line were photographed lying on the ground.

Appointments are highly encouraged at the site, with Watler warning people who show up without one have a good chance of being turned away.

By 1 p.m. on Friday, the site was already closed to walk-ins. While it still honored people's appointments after that, they still had to wait to receive the treatment.

Residents can make an appointment on this online portal or by calling the state's Monoclonal Antibody Treatment Support Line at 850-344-9637 for assistance. The site is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Hillsborough County site is one of about a dozen treatment centers announced so far around the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a vocal proponent of the Regeneron therapy, said he hopes to have 17 open within the next week or so.

Each site can treat about 300 patients a day.

Watler said the effort will hopefully ease the burden on area hospitals which are already overwhelmed treating severely ill COVID patients. But he said the best way to help is to avoid getting COVID in the first place.

"The No. 1 thing people need to do is get vaccinated because if you're fully vaccinated there's a very low chance you really need to end up here," he said, adding that people who are vaccinated but are still at high-risk of developing serious illness are welcome to take advantage of the treatment.

"In addition to that, vaccinated or not, people really need to wear their masks especially when they're indoors and around other people outside of their household, because this virus is certainly spreading," said Watler.

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.