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West Virginia preparing plans for COVID-19 treatments as feds limit supply

State officials are considering a plan to make monoclonal antibody treatments, such as Regeneron, more available to help prevent serious COVID infections that involve hospitalization. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — With hospitals in West Virginia filling up with unvaccinated people with severe COVID-19 infections, state officials are wanting to get monoclonal antibody treatments out quick to blunt the run on hospitals. But actions by federal officials could halt that plan before it starts.

State COVID-19 response officials and lawmakers announced this week a plan to be released Friday on using monoclonal antibody treatments to West Virginians who test positive for COVID-19 more quickly to stave off the worst effects of the virus, limiting the need for patients to be admitted to hospitals.

“The net of the whole thing is we try to continue to get everything we can to make sure we have the antibody (treatments),” said Gov. Jim Justice during his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

James Hoyer, leader of the state joint interagency vaccine task force, said state health officials have had a series of meetings working on the logistics pieces for how to better distribute mononclonal antibody treatments and the availability of the treatments.

“We’ll have more for you available for you Friday related to that,” Hoyer said. “We work right now to manage across the state. If there is a location or a hospital that doesn’t have the doses, we work across the health command and the interagency task force to help move doses where they need to be moved to. But we’ll have more information on how we’ll respond to rolling out what needs to be done going forward.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mononclonal antibody treatments are antibodies made in a lab designed to recognize and fight COVID-19, giving someone infected with COVID the needed antibodies to avoid severe symptoms and hospitalization.

One of the known treatments is Regeneron, or REGEN-COV, a two-drug cocktail. Former president Donald Trump received Regeneron when he was infected with COVID in the fall of 2020. The treatments are administered by a transfusion. The treatment cannot be used on patients who are already hospitalized due to COVID. The Regeneron treatment can cost $1,250 per infusion, though the cost is covered by the federal government.

Just like the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccines (the Pfizer vaccine received full approval last month), monoclonal antibody treatments are allowed under an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Only people who test positive for COVID-19 and have had symptoms for 10 days or less can be referred for treatment by a healthcare provider.

During a press conference Tuesday with members of the West Virginia Senate’s Republican caucus, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, first announced that state officials were working on a plan to better distribute monoclonal antibody treatments to take pressure off of hospitals.

“There’s a task force that’s been formed that will make it so that if you test positive for COVID, you can be eligible to get the infusion therapy,” Blair said. “We’re hoping that when this gets implemented here within days, that this will reduce the flow into the hospitals by two-thirds.”

According to the data made available by HHS on Wednesday, 4,800 out of 6,036 hospital beds are occupied in West Virginia hospitals, with 964 beds being taken up by COVID-19 patients. By percentage, 80 percent of the state’s hospital beds are in use, with 17 percent being used by COVID patients.

Out of a total 672 intensive care unit beds in West Virginia, 560 ICU beds are in use with 271 beds being patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms, leaving just 112 ICU beds left in the state. That comes to 83 percent of ICU beds in use in the state, with 42 percent of ICU beds in use for COVID-19 patients. Some hospitals are over their capacity, resulting in patients being sent to other hospitals with available beds.

“One of my greatest concerns as is that when the hospitals are overloaded … when you’ve got people laying in the emergency burns because they can’t get a bed, then that becomes a problem, same way for other diseases and things like that,” Blair said. “We want to be able to keep care of them. This infusion therapy has been shown to work and cut down that those numbers.”

However, the federal government may be clamping down on overuse of monoclonal antibody treatments in lieu of people getting vaccinated. According to Politico, HHS will be changing how much monoclonal antibody treatments they allocate to states.

Currently, the federal government makes 150,000 doses available to states each week on an as-needed basis. But heavy usage of the treatments in southern states hit hard by the delta COVID-19 variant during the summer have raised concerns that these states were taking up much of the supply.

“Seven states — Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama — accounted for 70 percent of all orders in early September,” the Politico article stated.

In neighboring Kentucky, Gov. Any Beshear announced that the healthcare providers would no longer be able to order monoclonal antibody treatments directly. Instead, the state government would supervise distribution. Justice has been a vocal critic of President Joe Biden’s management of the pandemic, including the lack of available booster shots for older residents and the immunocompromised.

“The Biden administration is cutting people off, because they think people are trying to short-hop and not follow his orders as far as getting everybody vaccinated,” Justice said. “This is getting to be more and more and more of a political food fight.”

Speaking during Tuesday’s press conference, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, explained the benefits of monoclonal antibody treatments. A respiratory doctor in Charleston, Takubo has been on the front lines of the pandemic. While he supports use of monoclonal antibody treatments to help prevent hospitalizations, Takubo urged people not to wait and get vaccinated.

“We’ve got another therapy that is even more effective,” Takubo said. “In fact, it’s 99.9 percent effective in preventing you from having death, and that’s the vaccine. But if you do get COVID infection and you do start becoming symptomatic from a COVID infection, you need to get to your healthcare provider because there are therapies that can help.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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