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Monoclonal antibody treatments effective for some Augusta Health COVID patients

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A patient receives an infusion of monoclonal antibodies.

Alongside other health systems, Augusta Health has become more reliant on monoclonal antibody infusions to combat COVID-19 infections and keep patients out of the hospital. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

As a refresher for those of us who haven't taken a science class in a while – antibodies are the little proteins that our white blood cells make to fight off diseases. Monoclonal antibodies are made in a lab, and are designed to combat a particular infection. They're administered via IV or a series of shots, and they temporarily boost your immune response to that specific infection, such as COVID.

JACKIE SIMS: These antibodies are like the soldiers, and they fight the bad guys, which is the virus itself. So it attaches itself to the virus and kind of tries to kill it off.

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Jackie Sims, administrative director of clinical operations at Augusta Medical Group, is third from left.

Jackie Sims is the administrative director of clinical operations at Augusta Medical Group, and oversees their monoclonal antibodies clinic. Last week, they treated 53 patients; they've seen a total of 930 since the clinic opened. The health system expects to receive 78 doses this week, according to a press release issued Monday. COVID-positive patients may be referred for the treatment by a doctor or urgent care center if they're above age 65, or have other conditions that put them at risk for severe illness.

SIMS: And then once we get that referral, we prioritize them by age each day, number of chronic conditions that they have, and where they are in their disease process. So antibodies can only be infused for patients who are at no more than the 10-day mark from the onset of their symptoms.

Their symptoms also need to be mild or moderate. Once someone is severely ill, Sims explained, the monoclonal antibodies are not as effective. On the day of the appointment –

SIMS: We do a very brief nursing intake with vital signs, med list, and then we put in an IV, and we start the medication, and it takes 30 minutes to infuse, and then we need to monitor you throughout the infusion and for an hour afterwards. And we do that by monitoring your vital signs, seeing if you're having any shortness of breath, and allergic reaction to the medication, monitoring your oxygen saturation. So they're there about two hours, and then they go home. And most patients tell us that they see a big relief within 24 hours of receiving these antibodies. They will see that their fever's gone, that their aches may go, breathing gets better, and their congestion and cough, many times, is also getting better.

For a while, the clinic used the Regeneron brand of monoclonal antibodies, but Sims said those worked better against the delta variant than omicron. A different antibody called Sotrovimab is still working well – but supplies of that are limited. What doses are available are distributed by the Virginia Department of Health, and Sims said the whole state has only been getting between 1,200 and 2,000 doses per week. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Virginia received 1,170 doses of Sotrovimab last week. When they fall short of monoclonal antibodies, Augusta Health may prescribe oral antiviral medicines that are available at some pharmacies.

While the use of monoclonal antibody infusions to fight COVID is new, the technology itself is not.

SIMS: … So they use antibodies in a lot of autoimmune diseases … so immunotherapy is another name for it. So there's a lot of things like sarcoidosis, or scleroderma, and a lot of different autoimmune diseases that use different forms of antibodies. But these antibodies are specifically built to treat COVID-19.

According to Augusta Health, less than 5% of those who receive an infusion need to be admitted to the hospital for COVID afterwards. Sims urges listeners to mask up in public, practice good hand hygiene, and get vaccinated so that, hopefully, they'll never have to come to the clinic.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.