WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Thursday announced additional steps to make antiviral treatment Paxlovid more accessible in the United States, as it anticipates COVID-19 infections will continue to spread during the summer travel season.
The country’s first federally-backed test-to-treat site will open Thursday in Rhode Island, giving patients immediate access to the drug once they test positive. Additional federally-backed locations are slated to open in the coming weeks in Massachusetts and New York City, both of which have been hit by significant increases in infections.
Next week, the U.S. will send authorized federal prescribers to several Minnesota-operated testing sites, turning them into test-to-treat sites. Federal authorities have also sent doctors clearer guidance to help them determine how to manage Paxlovid’s drug-drug interactions to help prescribers find ways to get more patients on the life-saving drug.
Despite a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, deaths from the virus have remained broadly stable over the past eight weeks as booster shots and widely available treatments have helped decouple infections and mortality.
Confirmed infections in the US have quadrupled since late March, from about 25,000 a day to more than 105,000 a day now. But the number of deaths, which has tended to delay infections by three to four weeks over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, has been steadily declining and is now fewer than 300 a day.
It’s the first time in the course of the pandemic that the two have not trended together, said White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. He called it an important development in helping Americans return to normal life.
“What’s been remarkable about the recent spike in infections we’re seeing is how steadily serious illnesses, and particularly deaths, are occurring after eight weeks,” he said. “COVID is no longer the killer it was a year ago.”
Jha said that given the wider use of rapid home tests, the results of which are often not reported to health officials, the real number of daily infections is likely 200,000 or more – double the reported rate – which he says only accounts for the death rate plateau more significant.
However, he also attributes a more than fourfold increase in prescriptions to vaccines to the highly effective drug Paxlovid in the last six weeks.
Jha said around 25,000 to 30,000 courses of Paxlovid are prescribed every day. When administered within five days of symptom onset, the drug has been shown to result in a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths in patients most likely to develop serious illness.
Due to a change in state allocation of Paxlovid, the number of pharmacies selling it has doubled to almost 40,000 in the last month.
“We’re at a point now where I fundamentally believe that most COVID deaths are preventable, that the deaths that are happening out there are mostly unnecessary, and that we now have a lot of tools to make sure people are not die from this disease. ‘ Jha told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
As the summer months approached, Jha said the “first thing” people need to do is “go and get fortified” – and if they have a breakthrough infection they should see their doctor to get Paxlovid. He said gatherings of all sizes can be held more safely because of the tools available – if people use them.
“In places in the country where the booster rates are much lower and the infection is spreading more, I am absolutely concerned that unfortunately we will see more serious illnesses,” he said.
“Getting vaccinated and boosted goes a long way in making these types of activities much safer,” he added. “And then, of course, we want to make Paxlovid widely available across the country so that in the event of a breakthrough infection, you’re still protected from serious illness.”
The US has ordered 20 million packs of Paxlovid from drugmaker Pfizer, and the country risks running out this winter if the drug continues to be used widely. The White House has been urging Congress for additional funds to support the purchase of more Paxlovid and other treatments, as well as additional boosters, for months.
For now, while the government has begun planning the potential need to ration federal vaccine supplies if Congress doesn’t act, Jha said his message to prescribers is not to worry about supplies.
“I believe we should now use as much as is necessary to protect Americans,” Jha said.
Zeke Miller, The Associated Press