While the best way to handle COVID-19 is still to avoid getting it by embracing masking, social distancing and stringent hand-washing, Kentucky hospitals have embraced treating COVID-positive patients with monoclonal antibodies to prevent serious hospital stays.
The synthetic antibodies attack the spike proteins on a COVID-19 virus, preventing it from latching onto a healthy cell.
"The virus does not enter the cell ... therefore cannot replicate in your body," said Dr. Dora Savani, with St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
Getting the treatment requires being quick on the draw, however. The antibodies are intended only for patients within three days of a positive COVID-19 test. The patient has to have experienced fewer than 10 days of symptoms as well.
"You have to act as soon as you're diagnosed," said Savani.
It may also be even tougher to find after Governor Andy Beshear announced a federal shortage of the treatment on Tuesday.
"I have a concern that some Kentuckians who are hesitant about the vaccine are placing faith in monoclonal antibodies," said Beshear. "What this shortage ought to tell you is that if you're unvaccinated and you get really sick, not only might there not be a bed in the hospital for you because they are so full, but that monoclonal antibody treatment might not be there for you either."
The treatment should not be used as an alternative to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health.
Now, Beshear said, state governments across the country will supervise the distributions of a specific amount of the treatments delivered to hospitals each week.
Data show those treated with monoclonal antibodies have an easier road to recovery. At St. Elizabeth, they've given the treatment to 2,013 patients; of that, only 80 have needed hospitalization afterward.
"It's the best treatment we have to keep people out of the hospital," said Savani. "You have a 70% risk reduction of being hospitalized. It's amazing."
St. Elizabeth runs an outpatient infusion unit that runs for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It handles the 50 to 80 referrals it receives daily for the 21-minute infusion treatment. Patients must be monitored for an hour total.