Two new COVID-19 treatments will be available to eligible patients at a new state-run facility in Anchorage and distributed around Alaska, health officials said Wednesday.
The treatments — known as monoclonal antibodies — are what the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, characterized as “manufactured fighters against the virus” during a public video call Wednesday afternoon.
The treatments are intended for people who have an elevated risk of a severe COVID-19 infection and recently tested positive as a way to potentially reduce their risk of needing hospitalization.
Two different monoclonal antibody treatments, administered through IV infusion, are being sent to certain health care facilities and skilled nursing facilities in the state, according to health officials.
The treatments, which recently received emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are also available at a temporary outpatient treatment center based at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage starting Wednesday.
In trials, the drugs seem to reduce the chance of an emergency room visit or COVID-19 hospitalization. They might aid those who are most at risk for a serious infection, said Benjamin Westley, a physician who specializes in infectious diseases and has taken care of many COVID-19 patients in Anchorage.
Around 40% of people with COVID-19 will be entirely asymptomatic. But for people who might be showing symptoms — a sore throat, a headache, a fever or something else — and have elevated risk factors for getting sick, the treatment could be helpful, Westley said in an interview Wednesday.
But, Westley noted, COVID-19 has no cure. The treatment instead is acting like a boost to someone’s immune system early on. Until recently, there weren’t any therapies shown to be beneficial for COVID-19 patients who weren’t in the hospital, Westley said.
While the COVID-19 vaccines likely won’t be widely available until after the surge of winter cases, the monoclonal antibody treatments can act as a bridge.
It’s important that the treatment is given quickly — within five days of symptom onset if possible, Westley said, adding that it must be given with 10 days.
“But this is not a standard of care treatment,” Westley said. “This is something that could be offered to a patient on a case-by-case basis and discussed with their doctors.”
Side effects from the treatment seem mild, Westley said. A small percentage of people get itching or irritation when they get the infusion, but one in roughly 800 could have a reaction that’s as bad as a severe allergic reaction. It’s rare, Westley said, but possible.
In order to receive the treatment, patients need a referral from a health care provider, said Dr. Eric Troxell, a clinical pharmacist with the state health department.
A doctor can refer someone if they meet the criteria for treatment. After the referral, the patient will be contacted to schedule the treatment, Troxell said.
The state contracted with the Alaska Airlines Center to set up the treatment site there. The facility is also designated as an alternate care site to handle overflow from hospitals, but the state isn’t activating the alternate care site at this time, state health officials said Wednesday.
Contracting with Fairweather LLC, the infusion center will treat 15 patients a day on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. The state aims to expand both the number of days the facility will operate as well as the number of people who can seek treatment there.
Troxell, with the Department of Health and Social Services, said the state receives a federal allocation of the treatments each week. Eventually, the treatment will likely receive full FDA approval and be available for purchase, according to Troxell.
The whole process — from intake, infusion and monitoring to discharge — takes roughly three hours, officials said.
The FDA has not authorized hospitalized patients or people who require oxygen therapy because of COVID-19 for the monoclonal antibody treatment.
Officials say that since the therapy is limited, people who believe they are eligible and recently tested positive should contact their health care providers.
“Between these new treatments and vaccines coming soon to Alaska, there is great hope on the horizon,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a written statement. “The end of this pandemic is in sight, but we still need to remain vigilant to continue to protect Alaskans and save lives.”
The state health department outlined the criteria for receiving the treatment. Patients must have tested positive for COVID-19, be 12 or older and weigh at least 40 kilograms, with at least one of the following high risk factors: a body mass index above 34; chronic kidney disease; diabetes; immunosuppressive disease; currently receiving an immunosuppressive treatment; older than 64 or older than 54 with certain other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or chronic respiratory disease.
Kids between the age of 12 and 17 who may be eligible must have a body mass index in the 85th percentile for their age, or have an condition like: sickle cell disease, a congenital or acquired heart disease, a neurodevelopmental disorder, a non-COVID-19 medical technological dependence, asthma or other chronic respiratory disease that requires daily medication.