After hospitalization spike, Austin partners with the state to push more COVID-19 antibody therapy

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An antibody therapy was supposed to keep COVID-19 patients from having to be hospitalized. But about a month after its distribution, Austin-area hospitalizations reached their highest total since July 24.

Some people have called Dr. Jack Bissett, an infectious disease specialist and consultant, not wanting to be one of those hospitalized.

“They’re fearful, they just get diagnosed with COVID-19 infection and they know that they’re immunocompromised,” says Dr. Bissett. “They’re usually they’re very very anxious to be able to get the infusion.”

That infusion is a monoclonal antibody therapy called bamlanivimab, developed by Eli Lilly & Company.

“We give them almost, what we call, instant immunity. We provide them with this antibody,” says Bissett, who works with both Ascension Seton and St. David’s hospital systems to administer this treatment.

He points out that these “infused antibodies” only last for a few weeks to three months and vaccination is still recommended. 

The therapy is supposed to help minimize symptoms for high-risk patients so that they don’t need to be hospitalized for COVID-19.

But it hasn’t been easy to get it to people: Dr. Bissett says it’s only available at a couple of hospital locations in Austin and everyone is dealing with current COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“There certainly have been times when I got a call and it might have taken several days… to actually get the infusion because there’s people in front of them waiting and they’ve got to sort of limited capacity right now,” he says.

Now, Austin-Travis County health officials are partnering with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to set up a mobile infusion center to administer antibody therapy.

“This is just one of many, many different ways that we’re trying to increase our capacity to deal with COVID-19 in our city,” says Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who expects it to be set up next week to accommodate about 12 beds.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Austin Public Health’s interim director Dr. Mark Escott said staff would be provided by TDEM.

Escott said people who qualify for the treatment include those over the age of 65 as well as young people who have underlying health conditions.

A spokesperson for Austin’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management says they will add questions to APH’s COVID-19 questionnaire to peg people who qualify.

Those people will then be sent a notification that they are eligible for an antibody treatment and a second screening will occur, he said.

“For others, we’re asking our physician community to refer folks to this center once it’s operational,” Escott said.

The city says the mobile infusion unit involves an 18-wheeler truck.

A spokesperson says will be either be administering regeneron or bamlanivimab or both and will be working with a local hospital that already has doses.

“There’s plenty of it available. We just have got to be able to get it out to patients and I think this mobile unit is going to be a big help,” Bissett says.

The Department of State Health Services also says they’re renewing their efforts to get the product out, “especially to nursing homes that have COVID-19 cases in their facilities,” a spokesperson told KXAN via email.

“Nursing facilities can request the product, and additional assistance, from HHSC. HHSC regulates nursing homes and requires reporting of outbreaks in them,” said press officer Douglas Loveday.

Loveday says Texas has over 30,000 doses, but hasn’t said how many of those have actually been delivered.

A spokesperson for Ascension Seton says they’ve been receiving regular shipments of the drug and have treated 80 patients with bamlanivimab as of Dec. 29.

He says bamlanivimab can be given within 10 days of the first symptom for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 through an antigen or molecular test. They must also meet these FDA criteria.

Loveday says the agency is increasing communication not only to nursing facilities but also healthcare providers, in general.

“We are also providing antibody treatments to facilities that can use them and providing additional support where necessary,” he says.

The CDC recommends that people who want the COVID-19 vaccine wait 90 days after receiving the bamlanivimab treatments or convalescent plasma before receiving the vaccine.

“This could be something that could really, used properly, I think it could really relieve some of the burden on our hospital capacity,” Bissett says.

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