With California staring down the triple threat posed by the coronavirus, RSV and flu, health officials are urging the wider use of anti-COVID drugs to help prevent people from falling seriously ill and keep them out of the hospital.
The drugs include pills such as Paxlovid, which can reduce the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 by almost 90%, and another oral medication known as molnupiravir.
The drugs are free and widely available, but officials say some doctors are not prescribing them as much as they should.
“Many of our hospitals across the state are reaching capacity — if they aren’t there already — and one of the ways we can reduce admissions is by treating individuals who have COVID-19,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, the California public health director and health officer, said in a statement. “Unlike previous years, people now have safe and effective treatment options that can prevent serious disease, reduce hospitalization and may also lower the risk of long COVID-19 symptoms.”
There are two antiviral pills available for eligible patients who have recently tested positive for the coronavirus. And they’re free.
Such treatments, he said Tuesday, “are underutilized, particularly among communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. As soon as someone has new symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, sore throat or fever, they should immediately test for COVID-19 and seek treatment if they are positive.”
Those who test positive for the coronavirus should promptly contact a healthcare provider because treatments need to begin within five to seven days following the onset of symptoms, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“Medications such as the Paxlovid pill can stop the virus from multiplying in your body, help you test negative sooner and may lower the risk of developing long COVID symptoms. Additionally, you do not need to have insurance or U.S. citizenship,” Orange County Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said in a statement this month.
COVID-19 treatment is recommended for anyone 12 and older with symptoms or who has a positive test result and might be at higher risk for worse illness, state officials say.
“We have highly effective treatments that are widely available if people get sick,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. “But, obviously, we need doctors to prescribe them. We need people to get them.”
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Those age 50 and older are eligible for anti-COVID drugs, as well as younger people who have conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, any history of smoking, asthma and mental health conditions, including depression.
Unvaccinated people are also eligible for treatment. The medicine provides the biggest benefit to those individuals, officials say, but also helps vaccinated people and those who have survived an earlier COVID-19 illness.
Upon testing positive, “The first thought every single American should have is, ‘Am I eligible for treatment?’” Jha said Thursday.
“The truth is we have fantastic treatments. Anybody over the age of 50, anybody with chronic disease should get evaluated,” he said. “Personally, as a physician, I think it’s very clear to me that anybody in their 60s or above should be treated. There should be a good reason not to treat somebody, and there [is] rarely a good reason.”
Some doctors, though, are saying their colleagues are not prescribing the drug when they should.
An infectious disease doctor at the University of Virginia recently said on Twitter that his wife’s grandmother, who is in her 90s, had COVID-19 and left the emergency room — but was told by two healthcare providers she wasn’t eligible for Paxlovid because of her kidney and liver function. In fact, her liver function was normal and her kidney function was so mildly impaired she was eligible for the drug.
“Their advice was wrong,” tweeted Dr. Taison Bell. “This is exactly the kind of person you definitely want to get [Paxlovid]. And she was denied.”
After that experience, a call was made to her primary care physician, and a prescription was later authorized.
“Why are doctors still so afraid to [prescribe] Paxlovid,” tweeted Dr. Purvi Parikh, an infectious disease expert and clinical assistant professor at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “It’s been a game changer for my patients. Treat early and aggressively!”
People can get the drugs by contacting their doctor, seeking care at an urgent care clinic or visiting a Test to Treat site. Some pharmacies also are able to dispense COVID-19 medicines. More information and resources are available at California’s COVID information website.
L.A. County’s case rate is down 18% from the prior week, but the numbers are still considered high.
Californians without health insurance, or who can’t reach their healthcare provider within 24 hours, who have tested positive for the coronavirus and have symptoms can seek a free virtual healthcare online or by calling (833) 686-5051.
Los Angeles County residents seeking medical treatment for COVID-19 can contact the Department of Public Health at (833) 540-0473, seven days a week, between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Like the state, L.A. County has seen a jump in coronavirus-positive hospitalizations over the last six weeks — though that metric has somewhat stabilized as of late.
“We’re hopeful that this may represent increased uptake of therapeutics and booster shots, which can significantly reduce the chances of developing severe illness for those who are infected,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
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Rong-Gong Lin II is a Metro reporter based in San Francisco who specializes in covering statewide earthquake safety issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bay Area native is a graduate of UC Berkeley and started at the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Luke Money is a Metro reporter covering breaking news at the Los Angeles Times. He previously was a reporter and assistant city editor for the Daily Pilot, a Times Community News publication in Orange County, and before that wrote for the Santa Clarita Valley Signal. He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona.
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