N.J. officials encourage use of monoclonal antibodies as hospitalizations rise

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File photo: NJ Department of Health Commissioner, Judy Persichilli at the War Memorial in Trenton, NJ on June 5, 2020

File photo: New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli at the War Memorial in Trenton, NJ on June 5, 2020. (Chris Pedota/The Record via AP, Pool)

With hospitalizations on the rise since the summer, New Jersey health officials are encouraging residents with mild COVID-19 symptoms to consider seeking treatment with monoclonal antibodies. However, they and other health experts say it’s not a substitute for getting vaccinated against the virus.

“The goal of this therapy is to help prevent hospitalizations, reduce viral loads, and lessen symptom severity,” said state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, noting that vaccination offers better prevention against severe illness.

Hospitalizations in the state reached their lowest point this year on July 2, with 267 patients. New Jersey has reported more than 1,000 hospitalizations each day since Aug. 24, peaking on Sept. 7, when it reported 1,186 people hospitalized with COVID-19. As of Wednesday, there were 1,152 COVID patients in hospitals.

New Jersey officials said they will not follow the lead of Florida and Texas, which have established state-run monoclonal antibody clinics. Persichilli said residents should talk with their health care providers about whether the treatment is right for them.

“We expect that monoclonal antibodies will be administered at our hospitals,” she said. “We are not planning on putting up any clinics.”

The Biden administration began to limit states’ access to monoclonal antibodies after concerns the drug was disproportionately being ordered by seven Southern states where vaccination rates are lower but interest in this treatment is high. Politico reports those states, including Florida and Texas, accounted for 70% of all orders in early September. Shipments will now be allocated to states, a change from the drug being shipped on an as-needed basis.

Persichilli has been encouraging patients to consider the treatment since January, when U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman tested positive for the virus and received monoclonal antibodies, which mimic the body’s natural immune response to help fight off viruses.

These synthetic antibodies are created in labs and tell the body to build its own specific antibodies targeting parts of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The federal government first authorized the use of monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 last November for patients 12 and older who have tested positive for the virus and are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms.

The therapy is not new, said Dr. Raquel Nahra, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Cooper University Health Care.

“It has been used for arthritis, multiple sclerosis, certain heart diseases, lupus,” she said. “The concept of monoclonal antibody has been around for a long time.”

New Jersey is one of the earliest adopters of the treatment against the coronavirus. University Hospital in Newark was part of trials in the early days of the pandemic.

Nahra said the use of the therapy to treat COVID-19 is twofold: to make the patient feel better quicker, while preventing them from getting sicker, and to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed.

“I think the patients should think of it on their personal level, it’s for them,” she added. “It prevents them from getting to the ICU and potentially dying.”

The treatment involves 20 minutes of infusing the antibodies intravenously, followed by a one-hour observation period. It can be used to treat people infected with the virus regardless of their vaccination status. Though the categories of people who qualify for the treatment have expanded, access varies among providers.

Nahra said the treatment is effective against COVID variants, including delta. However, she echoed Persichilli and other health experts that getting vaccinated is the best course of action to prevent spread and infections.

“We have a saying in infection prevention: an ounce of prevention, a thousand pounds of treatment,” Nahra said. “So preventing the disease from happening is way better than trying to treat the disease.”

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