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Experts Say Widespread Use Of COVID-19 Pill Could Prevent Future Hospital Surges

LAWRENCE (CBS) - Right now, Dr. Zandra Kelley is calling patients from the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center when she discovers they've tested for COVID-19 through searching local databases. She's hoping to offer them Paxlovid, a prescription drug by Pfizer that when taken early on in symptom presentation, has been proven to prevent roughly 89 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

COVID-19 therapeutic treatment has come a long way from when the virus first started spreading in 2020. Dr. Kelley and other providers are hoping that soon, patients know to call them to ask for the treatment.

"The good news is for treatments, our state is very well situated with an adequate supply of treatments that are available," explained Dr. Estevan Garcia, the Chief Medical Officer at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

"People don't know that they're eligible," explained Dr. Shira Doron, a well-known epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. "People don't know that there's widely available supply."

That's what leading health experts are trying to change: awareness. If the current leading therapeutics were more widely used to treat COVID-19 cases, they say, any future hospitalization surges because of the virus could be prevented.

With the effectiveness of booster shots limiting hospitalizations by 90%, plus the 89% effectiveness of the Paxlovid treatment, "you are ending up in a situation where if you did use it in a widespread fashion, the risk of hospitalization becomes minuscule, and that's what we need," Dr. Doron said.

Paxlovid is a 5-day pill made by Pfizer that can be prescribed and taken at home. It stops "the virus from being able to replicate itself well," Dr. Kelley explained. "So the Paxlovid blocks some of the tools that the virus needs to make more copies of itself, and if it can't make more copies, it can't make us as sick, and also makes it so we can't pass it on as much to somebody else."

Because the drug was in such limited supply when it first came out, public health experts fear that neither providers nor patients know how available it is now, and that the majority of adults are able to qualify.

"It is amazing who can qualify," explained Dr. Kelley. "It's the usual suspects you might think, people with diabetes, with cancer, with heart disease, etc. But also, if someone is a smoker or ever has been a smoker, they could qualify. If someone is physically inactive, that also is a risk factor for a moderate to severe COVID and they could qualify. If someone is just overweight, they could qualify."

In addition, the person only needs to be presenting symptoms as mild as a headache to start the 5-day regimen. "I personally had a patient I was very concerned about with a lot of underlying conditions that could put her at great risk for hospitalization, and she did very well with the treatment and was not hospitalized," explained Dr. Kelley.

However, some patients online have reported that after their 5 days with Paxlovid is complete, their COVID-19 symptoms start to come back, and they can still test positive on a rapid antigen test. In a statement Pfizer said, "We continue to monitor data from our ongoing clinical studies and real-world evidence. We have not seen any resistance to Paxlovid and remain very confident in its clinical effectiveness."

Even with the reported recurrence of symptoms, doctors say the drug is still doing what it was designed to do. "Paxlovid was studied as a drug to prevent hospitalization, and it does prevent hospitalization," Dr. Doron explained. "[Those cases don't] invalidate the reasons to take Paxlovid, which are to prevent you from needing to go to the hospital, and so it wouldn't for me be a reason to change my practice. You know, it might be something that I warn people could happen," she said.

Still, with the state's ample supply, public health experts are hopeful people will become more aware of the available treatments, test sooner, and call their doctors to get a prescription. "We know that when cases are high, we get overwhelmed hospitals and we have to stop elective surgeries which is really bad for public health," Doron explained. "The goal here is to really shorten the disease, to shorten COVID and to prevent it from becoming something that requires hospitalization," Dr. Garcia added. "It's very effective in that."


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