COVID surge puts crunch on hospitals; demand for infusion treatments increase
BATON ROUGE - As hospitals run low on open beds and staff, doctors are turning more frequently to an infusion treatment for COVID-19 patients.
"There's been a lot of focus on it this week, and I think that's a good thing because people need to know what their treatment options are," Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday of monoclonal antibodies.
Monoclonal antibody treatment is a one-time infusion of lab-created proteins that mimic the immune system's infection response to fight the virus. Louisiana has been offering the treatment option for some time since it was given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration late last year.
With hospitals overwhelmed, it's getting more attention than ever.
"We have recently expanded the capacity to administer the monoclonal antibodies, particularly with the recent surge," said Dr. Raneesha Ford, director of pharmaceutical services for the Baton Rouge General Medical Center. "We are also making preparations now to even expanded our capacity even more."
Lately BRG's ExpressCare clinics administer an average of 20 monoclonal antibody infusions each day, according to Ford. Before the current spike, it was roughly five treatments daily.
BRG has had a waitlist in previous weeks for those interested in getting the infusion.
The infusion, which can only be given to patients meeting eligibility requirements, is a one-dose treatment for positive patients within 10 days of symptoms appearing.
"It is not 100 percent," Edwards said Friday during his weekly virus briefing. "It is not a silver bullet, but the monoclonal antibody infusion, if received very shortly after someone tests positive and develops symptoms, can prevent that disease from getting to the point where they need to be hospitalized."
While not guaranteed to prevent hospitalizations, data suggests it does so overwhelmingly. In a media briefing Thursday, Ochsner leaders said 9,700 people have gotten the infusions at their campuses.Only 28 people of them have had to be hospitalized following the treatment.
"The idea is to give people passive immunity at the time they're initially infected," said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of hospital quality for Ochsner. "We want to give it early, within the first three to four days of getting COVID."
Edwards says the state's use of monoclonal antibodies has increased 27-fold since July. Last week alone, nearly 7,000 infusions were given statewide, he said.
At a time when hospital beds and staff are at a premium, and the state's entire healthcare system is at the brink of being overwhelmed, those working in COVID units will take any help they can get to keep people from becoming sick enough to need hospital treatment.
"This prevents individuals, patients, from reaching our hospital doors," Ford said. "It is us being able to provide care to them out in the ambulatory settings and to get them back home to recover for the rest of the time they need to be quarantined."
Though hospitals and state health leaders are touting the effectiveness of monoclonal antibodies in keeping COVID-positive patients from needing hospitalization, they warn the treatment should not be treated as a substitute for getting vaccinated. The shots themselves have proven effective at preventing infection, and to a higher degree, hospitalizations and deaths.
"It's absolutely not curative, and it is not sustainable," Kemmerly said. "So vaccination needs to happen after the monoclonal [treatment]."
Following monoclonal antibody treatment, a patient must wait 90 days before getting vaccinated.