As the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus makes its way across the state, residents are finding that infusion centers are closing down, and many hospitals are experiencing a shortage in antibody infusions.
The federal government has temporarily stopped shipments of specific treatments – Regen-Cov, bamlanivimab, and etesevimab – citing that the treatments are not effective against the new variant.
“Circulating SARS-CoV-2 viral variants, including omicron, may be associated with resistance to monoclonal antibodies,” stated the nation’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response last week. “… data show that it is unlikely that bamlanivimab and etesevimab administered together or Regen-Cov will retain activity against this variant.” The agency stated that based on that date, it will pause any further allocations of bamlanivimab and etesevimab together, etesevimab alone, and Regen-Cov.
Meanwhile, the office also reports that based on similar cell culture data, the sotrovimab infusions appear to “retain activity against the omicron variant,” a fact that has left sotrovimab in high demand – and facilities experiencing a shortage of that particular treatment. An additional 300,000 doses of sotrovimab will reportedly be available for distribution this month.
HHS states it will prioritize distribution of the infusions based on a number of factors, including the prevalence of Covid in a region, variants, and vaccine rates. Holmes County and Washington County have consistently ranked last and next to last in the state for vaccination rates, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. Officials speculate that, combined with the counties’ status as rural communities, may help hospitals rank higher on the distribution priority list.
Northwest Florida Community Hospital (NFCH) in Chipley and Doctors Memorial Hospital (DMH) in Bonifay are among facilities trying to keep up with the ever-emerging Covid variants.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve gone through several different monoclonal antibody treatments in the US, – the latest one was brand name Regen-Cov and was our best option for many months,” said Dr. Warren Bailey, DMH Director of Pharmacy and Infection Control.
“The omicron variant has changed all that; it is showing much less susceptibility to many of the current monoclonal antibody infusions that are readily available. DMH has petitioned for shipments of [sotrovimab], but as of yet, have not received any. As far as I know, no infusion center in the area has it.”
Bailey goes on to say that for those diagnosed with Covid, treatment is now a “multi-factor decision” between the patient and their health care provider, considering vaccination status, risk factors, the incidence of omicron or an older variant in the area, and the risks of getting an infusion that may not help.
“We will continue to offer Regen-Cov if [the patient has] a physician’s order while supplies last, but the criteria are more stringent and are subject to change based on FDA recommendations.”
Bailey states while there has not yet been an official report of the omicron variant in Holmes County, he believes it will be long.
“We’re not really sure yet how much omicron is here,” he said. “It would be hard to believe that it’s not, but we haven’t had that from an official source. As we march along a little more every day, and the omicron is the most likely variant, getting the infusion may not be in your best interest. We continue to urge people to get vaccinated and wear masks, to be a good steward of your time, your air, and your space and who you’re sharing it with.”
NFCH Chief Operating Officer Spencer Smith, who confirms Washington County has had confirmed instances of the omicron variant, also encourages vaccines and the utilization of masks, adding that those who test positive for Covid should be sure to get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, a molecular test that can determine the which Covid variant is present.
“Similar to how antibiotics work, not every antibiotic is a one-size-fits all for every infection,” said Smith. “It’s important to get the PCR test to know what variant you have in order to know the proper treatment. We want to know which one is the best one to give you. That’s the best way to tailor treatment. The data is there, and if you know what variant is present, you know the best course of action.”
NCFH is also hoping for a new shipment of the infusion treatments.
“We are anticipating receiving another supply, but we don’t know when that will be,” he said. “We do advocate for our local population so that we can have those treatments, and we have a Covid-dedicated staff for testing, treatment, and vaccinations.”
NFCH’s PCR testing lab has also been instrumental in providing data to the CDC.
Meanwhile, state officials are also advocating for Florida residents.
Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladpo has criticized the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for pausing shipments in a Dec. 28 letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“The lack of allocation of this life-saving treatment from the federal government continues to cause another immediate and life-threatening shortage of treatment options to the State of Florida as the Omicron variant spreads throughout the state,” wrote Ladpo.
State Senator George Gainer agreed.
“It is disheartening to have, yet again, found ourselves fighting for better access to monoclonal treatment for our constituents,” said Sen. Gainer.
“We have and will continue to do everything in our power to get our medical professionals the medicine they need to treat patients. We are a grateful for a governor who has joined us at every step in this fight.”