Monoclonal antibodies proving to be effective COVID treatment but it’s not a vaccine substitute
The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
“It has been hard in general for nursing since COVID started,” Keating said. “I was feeling a little disheartened.”
She was looking for a bit of a change, potentially to something that was more rewarding and made her feel like she was making a difference. When the hospital was looking for volunteers to perform monoclonal antibody treatments for patients sick with COVID-19, Keating quickly raised her hand.
“I just needed a little lifting up, if you will, and this job has really done it,” Keating said. “People are so thankful when they come in and receive the antibodies. … They’re so thankful and that’s really been a game-changer for me.”
Yampa Valley Medical Center was an early adopter of the COVID-19 treatment that public health officials have said is becoming key at limiting hospitalizations at a time when just 6% of Colorado’s intensive-care beds are available.
While proving to be effective — out of 276 local treatments on COVID patients, officials say just a handful have ended up in the hospital — the treatment essentially gives patients antibodies that vaccinated people are already making on their own.
“It’s basically antibodies, very similar to what your body makes,” said Wes Hunter, director of pharmacy at the hospital. “It’s not a substitute for vaccines, and I think that is a really important part, but if you’re not vaccinated and you’re exposed to COVID and at high risk, I think it’s shown that it does a pretty good job of keeping people out of the hospital.”
Hunter and the hospital’s nurse manager Sanaya Sturm both said vaccination is still the best way to protect from contracting the virus, and the vaccine will start fighting the virus right away, giving patients a better chance to overcome COVID without a hospital stay.
Still, for those unvaccinated or people with weak immune systems, when given within 10 days of symptoms, Hunter said antibodies have had really good results.
The treatment is given once through an intravenous infusion that takes about 20-30 minutes. Patients are then monitored for an hour after. As these patients have COVID-19, they enter into a different part of the hospital to protect other immune-compromised patients.
“A plug to the nurses, we’ve had a lot of brave volunteers that really have taken this on, and they take a lot of pride in it,” Sturm said, adding that they are taking on additional risk by working in these roles.
The earlier someone is given the treatment after testing positive for COVID the better, Hunter said. Because of this, Sturm said when starting to notice symptoms, people should contact their doctor to see if monoclonal antibodies may be right for them.
“When folks get sick, the key is not to stay at home for five or six days before they decide to get tested or be seen by a provider because, essentially, that really narrows their window of being able to get the treatment,” Sturm said.
Even if younger and seemingly in good health, people should discuss the treatment option with their doctor to see if there is a risk they may be unaware of, Hunter said.
These treatments first started at the hospital about a year ago, before vaccines were available, and for a while Yampa Valley Medical Center had done more treatments than any other facility in the UCHealth system, Hunter said. That has changed as access to the antibodies has improved and hospitals across the state started using it more.
While there is no cost for the monoclonal antibodies to patients, as the federal government is picking that up, making the antibody treatment cost much more than making a vaccine. Hunter said a vaccine is about 80% cheaper, and while access to antibodies is better that it was earlier this year, vaccines are much more available.
It also adds to the various tools available to treat people with the virus, something Hunter said providers have gotten much better at since the start of the pandemic.
“We know a lot more about how to treat these patients; it’s not just throwing the kitchen sink at them,” Hunter said.
Vaccines are still better because they allow the body to create these antibodies on its own, rather than needing to wait for an infusion, Hunter said.
“And (self-created antibodies) are being vigilant, looking for the virus rather than waiting until you get a positive result and get sick,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we can emphasize this enough — this isn’t a substitute for the vaccine.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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