Craige Campbell, a website manager from Desert Hot Springs, California, began leaving messages with his doctor immediately after testing positive for COVID-19 and developing a 101-degree fever. Despite having no underlying health conditions, he was soon able to get a prescription.
The only pharmacy dispensing the drug was more than an hour’s drive away, so Campbell had a friend pick it up for him.
“I felt a bit privileged in a way,” he said. “The odds that it would land in my plate in the right amount of time were pretty extraordinary.”
At the same time, there is a shortage of antibody medications, the infused or injected drugs that can head off death and hospitalization. Only one of them, from GlaxoSmithKline, appears effective against omicron, and it, too, is being rationed.
Federal officials are limiting shipments of it to about 50,000 doses per week. This week, the government announced it is buying 600,000 more doses, on top of 400,000 purchased in November.
At the UPMC hospital system in Pennsylvania, the staff can treat fewer than 1,000 patients per week with antibodies, down from as many as 4,000 earlier in the pandemic.
Doctors and nurses around the U.S. have developed complex means of deciding who should get the scarce medications, based on patients’ symptoms, their underlying medical risks, where they live and whether they are healthy enough to travel for an infusion.
“What do we have on hand?” is the first question, said University of Maryland Medical Center’s Dr. Greg Schrank. “Among those therapies, what’s the most effective and how can we direct it to the people that we know are of greatest risk?”
The increasingly complicated treatment picture comes as exhausted, frustrated hospital workers try to manage rising admissions.
As of Sunday, nearly 128,000 Americans were in the hospital with COVID-19, surpassing the all-time high of around 125,000 last January. While fewer COVID-19 patients now require intensive care, the surge is pushing hospitals to the breaking point.
Considering that threat, Pfizer’s pill arrived just in time, Schrank said.
“It’s not going to turn the tide on the total number of cases, but it could really help dampen the impact on hospitals,” he said.