In early August, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took the fight against the COVID-19 Delta variant to the streets. He traveled the entire state, opening infusion centers so Floridians could receive monoclonal antibodies (MAs) as outpatients when they tested positive for the virus. The state’s surgeon general issued a blanket order that allowed patients to receive them without obtaining a physician’s order. Then DeSantis held dozens of press conferences using the slogan “Early Treatment Saves Lives” to raise awareness.
Despite communications from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and an entire web page on accessing the treatment, many Americans remained in the dark. Most hadn’t heard of Regeneron, one brand of the treatment, since President Donald Trump received an infusion in the fall of 2020. MAs received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) shortly after that. And the NIH finally added them to the recommended treatment protocol in the late spring of 2021.
Still, no television doctor mentioned them. Neither did Dr. Anthony Fauci or CDC Director Rochelle Walensky during their hundreds of television hits this summer. Not even when cases started to rise and evidence of COVID-19 breakthrough cases emerged. Most Americans still believed if you tested positive for COVID-19, you went home with no treatment. If your lips turned blue, you went to the hospital. DeSantis changed that for patients in Florida.
And it worked. In the first few weeks of the program, hospitalizations dropped by 20%. DeSantis was correct that it was essential to disconnect COVID-19 illness from hospitalization to manage the pandemic. Our health experts ignored this goal for more than a year. It is easy to observe the results in a chart on COVID-19 hospitalizations tweeted by DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw.
Following DeSantis’s intense effort to raise public awareness, HHS notified providers that the agency would review all orders for MAs and approve them. The HHS also requires states to identify the sites that can receive them and the amounts. Previously, individual facilities were ordering directly from AmerisourceBergen. Now it looks like they are rationing them. This week, in a nation of 340 million people, 176,460 doses will ship. On Tuesday alone, the CDC reported 144,644 new cases.
Perhaps the national purchase program was caught flatfooted believing cases would remain low, as they had all summer. However, that was never what Fauci and Walensky were saying on television. Both hyped concerns about a collision between COVID-19 and influenza in the fall. Southern states already experienced a clash between COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, straining hospital resources. Keeping COVID-19 patients out of the hospital with a proven, effective treatment seems like a strategy to mitigate that strain.
Biden promised that HHS would increase shipments of MAs when he announced his vaccine mandate. What the program is actually doing is redistributing supply out of some of the hardest-hit states. Alabama is expressing concerns, as it sees rising hospitalizations and will only receive 70% of its previous orders. The state has halted plans to open new infusion centers. According to Newsweek:
Dr. Aruna Arora, president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, said in a statement that the announcement came at a time when Alabama’s hospitals are “full and under tremendous stress.” Given the level of hospitalizations the state is experiencing, physicians are “very concerned” about the move to limit supply and access, she said.
Luckily, COVID-19 super sleuth Phil Kerpen found a workaround for concerned states. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) also makes monoclonal antibodies. Sotroimab is available under an EUA and recommended by the NIH for the Delta variant. According to Kerpen, GSK’s product is not on a federal purchase order. He suggests states use COVID-19 relief funds to make bulk purchases directly from GSK since HHS is not controlling the distribution of Sotroimab.
Senator Rand Paul noted another barrier to treatment with MAs. A patient must take the MAs within the first ten days of infection. However, if they get admitted to the hospital in that timeframe, the treatment is not available. Paul encouraged people to ask for treatment as soon as they test positive. If they end up in the ER, they should ask where they can access it before admission.
That the federal government failed to prepare with the only recommended treatment in sufficient quantities is inexcusable. That HHS is cutting supplies in hard-hit states is unconscionable. At some point, it is legitimate to ask if the fear and suffering created by COVID-19 is a problem they really want to solve.