SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - There's a new treatment for COVID-19 that's showing great promise in keeping people out of the hospital. Monoclonal antibodies were granted emergency use authorization by the FDA in November, and local health providers have been using them for high-risk patients before severe symptoms develop.
"It's really the only medicine where we have evidence to use before someone gets sick enough to require oxygen," Cottage Hospital Infectious Disease Dr. David Fisk said.
Fisk calls monoclonal antibodies an important tool in the fight against COVID-19. They can help the immune system respond more effectively to the virus.
"What they do is they actually bind and stick directly to the virus," Fisk said. "So they can then prevent the virus from attacking and entering and infecting our human lung cells."
Federal reports show early evidence that monoclonal antibodies can reduce the amount of coronavirus in a patient's body, leading to a faster recovery and decreasing the chances of a hospital stay.
"You can kind of think of it as neutralizing the virus," Lompoc Valley Medical Center Pharmacy Director Sarah Osellame said.
There is a risk of allergic reaction to the medicine, but local health providers we spoke with have not seen any.
"We haven't had any severe reactions from them," Osellame said. "And most all the patients we've been tracking have not been hospitalized."
Monoclonal antibodies are delivered through an intravenous (IV) infusion. The process takes between 15 minutes to an hour. The treatment has been authorized for patients who have tested positive in the last 10 days and are at high risk of developing severe symptoms and requiring hospitalization.
Monoclonal antibodies have shown to be most effective at helping seniors, and people with obesity and other pre-existing conditions to stay out of the hospital.
"The way the monoclonal antibodies work at Marian," said Marian Regional Medical Center Emergency Department Director Dr. Alicia Mikolaycik Gonzalez, "Is normally a primary care provider will actually refer their patient to come to the ER to get that infusion."
Dr. Gonzalez said a small number of people have been given monoclonal antibodies to fight COVID-19 at Marian. She says it's too early to see any trends, but is cautiously optimistic in the data that exists.
"We look at the studies that have been done for monoclonal antibody infusions, which are small groups, and we see promise," Gonzalez said. "But we're still waiting to see what happens once we try it with larger groups of patients."
In Santa Barbara, Dr. Fisk at Cottage says he's seen a notable reduction in hospital admissions for the 200 people they've treated.
"We realize we don't have all the answers on these drugs yet," Fisk continued. "Evidence is evolving on them over time."
The drug is free, with the Federal Government covering the cost. Over 600 thousand monoclonal antibodies have been distributed to healthcare facilities nationwide.
Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo and Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton have not used monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 patients, according to a spokesman for Tenet Health.
Top federal health officials urge patients who meet the criteria to talk to their doctor, and if qualified, seek out the treatment.