COLORADO SPRINGS — UCHealth has received a limited supply of a new experimental COVID-19 drug that may lessen the severity of illness in high-risk people, keeping them out of the hospital.
As our hospitals here in southern Colorado and across the state near capacity, it's well-known how busy COVID-19 units are treating people who are very sick, but this pandemic is straining every department in hospitals, like the pharmacy at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs.
Carrie Beckman is a pharmacist at Memorial who explains: “We are dispensing a lot more medications to patients who are in the hospital. Patients with COVID need a lot of medication, and we are making sure we get those medications to the bedside teams quickly, and as our hospital gets more full, there are only so many of us so (in the pharmacy), so we are trying to get everything out to more patients as best we can.”
And during this busy time, the pharmacy staff at Memorial was also busy working to get a share of an experimental drug from Eli Lilly here in Colorado Springs. Beckman says, “This medication was really difficult to get. We worked a lot with Denver and the UCHealth north region who have been working closely with the state to get vials allocated. The state wanted to make sure that they distributed this medication throughout the state to make sure all patients had some access to it.”
The medication is called bamlanivimab and Beckman says because of the way it works, its emergency use status from the F.D.A. and its limited availability, it's only being given to select patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. “This treatment is not for hospitalized patients, it's for patients who are outpatient who we are hoping to prevent from being admitted to the hospital.”
This specific group of potential candidates are those who are not sick enough to be hospitalized but have pre-existing health conditions that nearly guarantee that if something isn’t done, they likely will need to be. “These are patients who have immunosuppression or other comorbidities that make them more likely to have serious effects from COVID.”
Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs began using the drug Tuesday, Nov. 24, when two people with a COVID-19 diagnosis received an infusion of the medication. Three others have since received the treatment at Memorial Central. Memorial was the first in the UCHealth system to use the treatment.
The vaccines being developed are meant to give people protection from getting COVID-19. Bamlanivimab isn’t a vaccine; it’s a therapy for people who have already been infected and it is given in an attempt to keep them from getting sicker, and hopefully will help them get better faster.
How does bamlanivimab work? Beckman says, “Bamlinivimab is a human monoclonal antibody that attaches to the spike proteins on the coronavirus and prevents the virus from entering the cell, so the virus can’t replicate. That way you could have less of the virus in your body and get rid of it easier. It basically finds the coronavirus, and gives it a hug so it can't attach to other cells.”
Given more time to be produced by Eli Lilly, along with the vaccines that aim to give herd immunity to the population, bamlanivimab hopefully will become one of the tools we have to help ease the strain on our hospitals and end this pandemic.
Beckman says now having even the limited ability to treat COVID patients and hopefully keep them out of the hospital is giving her a new sense of hope in this fight. “This medication has the potential of decreasing the number of patients who would be admitted to the hospital. Our hospitals are already full and getting fuller. We want to do everything we can to decrease those numbers.”
If you test positive for COVID-19 and you are wondering if this treatment might help you, talk with your doctor. They can discuss with you more about how the drug works, its possible side effects, what your pre-existing conditions are, and if you are a good candidate or not. If you are a candidate, your doctor can then go to a website and inquire about availability.
Beckman says, “We are using a random allocation process as a way to fairly and equally provide this medication to those who are at high risk. There's a lot of people who would potentially qualify to get this, but there is only a limited supply of the medication right now. A physician can go to a website and to see if a patient might be selected to get this medication.”
As advanced as bamlanivimab is, Beckman points out we already have other tools at our disposal that can give us protection from COVID-19. “There's a lot of things people are doing on their own - wearing masks, social distancing. Bamlanivimab is simply another tool that we have to hopefully avoid coming to the hospital.”
UCHealth was allocated nearly 650 doses of the drug for use at four locations across Colorado. Supplies of the medication – which is in high demand across the nation – are extremely limited. Allocations were made to states based on population and COVID-19 cases.
The treatment also will be available at University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
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