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Florida Offers More Monoclonal Antibodies, But Experts Say To Focus On Prevention

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some states, including Texas and Florida, are operating monoclonal antibody treatment centers to help curb hospitalizations from COVID-19. The therapy has emergency use authorization from the FDA and first made headlines when former President Trump used it last fall. Health experts say the treatment can help a lot of people, but they add, more attention should be placed on preventing coronavirus infection in the first place. Stephanie Colombini of member station WUSF has this report from Tampa.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Patients hoping to relieve their COVID symptoms drove to a site at the local fairgrounds and waited hours to receive the antibody treatment. They got four injections of a drug known as Regeneron - two in the arms and two in the stomach. Kevin Watler with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County says it helps fend off severe infection. He says the treatment's an effective tool, one of several needed to combat the current surge.

KEVIN WATLER: Something that will going to help, but it's not a perfect solution. The No. 1 thing people need to do is get vaccinated. And people really need to wear their mask. This virus is certainly spreading.

COLOMBINI: The treatment's available to high-risk patients 12 and older who recently tested positive for COVID or, in some cases, were just exposed. The FDA lists conditions like obesity and lung disease as qualifiers but is letting doctors make the call. The site in Tampa is one of 21 Governor Ron DeSantis opened around the state. They've treated about 50,000 patients so far.

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RON DESANTIS: It's all about early treatment, saving lives, also keeping people out of the hospital. No one wants to be in a hospital or an ICU. And obviously, the hospitals have had a really trying summer with a lot more patients.

COLOMBINI: COVID hospitalizations are declining in Florida after hitting record highs in August. DeSantis attributes that in part to raising awareness about the treatment. Before the state-run sites were open, hospitals were some of the only places offering it. Fifty-seven-year-old Lisa Sibley recently got the antibodies through an IV infusion in a tent outside an overrun hospital. She has asthma and got COVID despite being fully vaccinated. Sibley admits the newness of the vaccine and the therapy terrified her. But in each case, she told herself to trust the science.

LISA SIBLEY: I had to take my own advice and do whatever I could do to make myself better.

COLOMBINI: And she's glad she did. Sibley says her symptoms quickly improved. Still, she's frustrated with Florida's surge.

SIBLEY: We should have had masks in place. More people should have had the vaccine. We shouldn't have a governor that is going to withhold funds from people in education because they want to do what they think is best for children.

COLOMBINI: The DeSantis administration followed through on threats to punish school districts for requiring masks despite a judge ruling it can't do that. It's appealing that decision. DeSantis has been criticized for downplaying the vaccines while promoting the antibody treatment. But he denies this.

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DESANTIS: We've got to be honest with people. There are people who are vaccinated who are testing positive. It's almost always very mild. And it was the right thing to do. And it is protecting them against severe outcomes.

COLOMBINI: The federal government is paying for the drugs for now. But Dr. Kami Kim, infectious disease specialist with the University of South Florida, says they are a lot pricier than the vaccines and more complicated to administer. She says she's all for expanding access but reiterates prevention is key.

KAMI KIM: I still think the best thing would be for people to not get COVID in the first place. Yes, we have something to treat them if they do, but that's not really what you want.

COLOMBINI: Take it from Lisa Sibley, who says getting COVID completely disrupted her life. She says she's glad more people can get this therapy but hopes more don't have to. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAFORM'S "LETTERS TO THE VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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