Positive for COVID-19? How monoclonal antibodies help people stay out of the hospital.

Nov. 18, 2021
Two patients receive monoclonal antibody treatment at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in order to help them avoid sever illness.
Sandy Overhultz, a nurse at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, cares for Vicky Schommer of Greeley (left), and Lorraine Erdahl of Fort Collins. Monoclonal antibodies help patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 stay out of the hospital. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

While vaccination provides excellent protection from COVID-19, if you end up with the coronavirus, monoclonal antibodies can shorten the duration of the disease while cutting the chance of ending up in the hospital by a solid 70%.

Getting monoclonal antibodies is not quite as easy as taking a pill, and that has presented some challenges. But medical experts have worked to make it easier to get monoclonal antibodies so they can reduce stubbornly high COVID-19 hospitalizations.

How monoclonal antibodies help

Monoclonal antibodies are lab-produced proteins that attach to coronavirus-causing SARS-CoV-2 viruses and keep them from invading human cells. The combination of its delivery by infusion and the federal and state involvement in the distribution process has slowed its uptake.

UCHealth has been leading the monoclonal antibody charge in Colorado, and is taking steps to make it easier to get monoclonal antibodies into the people who need them more quickly and efficiently.

Speed matters with monoclonal antibodies: they’re ideally administered within three to five days of symptom onset, and the earlier they’re infused, the better they work. To learn more, click here.

Two ways to get monoclonal antibodies

UCHealth’s Virtual Urgent Care is helping quarterback the process in two different ways, says Dr. Adit Ginde, a UCHealth emergency physician and vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. First, those lacking a primary care physician – or who, for a $49 flat fee, want to move quickly – can set up a Virtual Urgent Care appointment online. Second, for those with primary care physicians, patients can get a referral to Virtual Urgent Care, often avoiding the fee.

Two patients receive monoclonal antibody infusions at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital to help them avoid sever illness..
Monoclonal antibodies have been proven to help keep patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 out of the hospital. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

The cost of infusion is typically covered by insurance. The U.S. government provides the drug at no cost by spending $2,100 per dose in an effort to reduce costly hospitalizations and to keep the pandemic in check.

In either case, Virtual Urgent Care staff versed in monoclonal antibody treatment and scheduling will determine your eligibility for infusion. The criteria are broad: COVID-19 plus any one of the following: being overweight (BMI greater than 25), age 65 or older, pregnant, or immunocompromised/immunosuppressed; having chronic kidney disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or chronic lung disease. (There’s more – full list here). Virtual Urgent Care will then manage the process on the state website and get an appointment scheduled.

How to get help with monoclonal antibodies

The aim is to get patients in for monoclonal antibodies and get them in faster. Part of the challenge is to get more providers familiar with the process of prescribing monoclonal antibodies.

Photo of Dr. Andit Ginde
Dr. Adit Ginde

“This is an ‘as-soon-as-possible’ treatment,” Ginde said. “It’s authorized for 10 days after symptom onset, but it’s really most useful within the first few days of illness.”

Monoclonal antibody infusions are being offered at 130 locations around Colorado. That’s in addition to new monoclonal antibody treatment buses operating in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Evans, Grand Junction and Cortez.

‘Everyone benefits’ if monoclonal antibodies are easier to get

As noted, major clinical trials have shown monoclonal antibodies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization by 70% or more. In addition, Ginde says, monoclonal antibodies cut the length of time you feel sick by four full days (Tamiflu, by comparison, shortens influenza-symptom duration by 12 to 24 hours and has little impact on hospitalization numbers).

In the coming months, antiviral pills may join monoclonal antibody infusions in the health care toolkit. But Merck’s molnupiravir isn’t being considered for U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization until Nov. 30, and Pfizer has yet to submit data on its promising antiviral Paxlovid to the FDA. Until then, monoclonal antibodies are the most effective treatments for keeping COVID-19 infections in check.

“Everyone benefits, but those most at risk for hospitalization benefit most,” Ginde said. “Anything we can do to keep COVID patients out of the hospital is tremendously important always, and certainly right now. Not only are emergency departments and hospitals operating way above capacity, but the health care workforce is also frayed.

A nurse dons Personal Protective Equipment before entering a patient room at Poudre Valley Hospital.
Poudre Valley Hospital nurse Sandy Overhultz dons Personal Protective Equipment. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Ginde stressed that monoclonal antibodies are not a “vaccination replacement.”

Vaccines sharply diminish the risk of catching the coronavirus in the first place. But monoclonal antibodies, along with vaccinating as many people as possible, are, he said, “a critical part of our armament to keep the individual safe and keep the health care system and workforce solvent.”

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.

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