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Drive-thru antibody clinic offers hope for COVID-19 patients

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Vicky Jones, right, leans back in preparation to receive four shots of monoclonal antibodies in her belly at a new Asante drive-thru clinic in Medford.
Treatment cuts risk of hospitalization, death

Sitting in her truck with a stuffed-up nose, chills and a cough, Medford resident Vicky Jones readied herself to receive four shots of monoclonal antibodies at a drive-thru clinic near Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.

“We’ll give you a whole army of synthetic antibodies to start fighting COVID,” Dr. Sue Hagar told her.

Nurses administered four shots in her belly, which is where most patients choose to get the injections because a cushion of fat helps the process. The upper arm is another potential site for the shots.

“It didn’t really hurt,” Jones said.

She said she was glad to get the lab-made antibodies, which doctors say cut the risk of hospitalization and death among people diagnosed with COVID-19.

The antibodies aren’t a replacement for vaccination, but they can help people with COVID-19 who are either unvaccinated or experience a breakthrough case despite being vaccinated.

More than 90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated in Asante’s three hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.

Jones said she got vaccinated back in the spring but recently caught the virus and developed cold-like symptoms. She has asthma and met the criteria for getting monoclonal antibodies.

Asante began offering monoclonal antibody infusions at Ashland Community Hospital back in January.

But that intravenous infusion process takes longer, and a maximum of 12 people a day can get the potentially life-saving treatment inside the infusion clinic, Hagar said.

Asante opened the drive-thru clinic in Medford Aug. 30 after monoclonal antibodies became available through the four-shot process. Although it doesn’t take long to get the shots, medical workers keep an eye on patients for one hour in case of adverse reactions, such as an allergic reaction.

The drive-thru clinic can handle up to 80 people a day. They stay cocooned inside their cars, making the process safer for themselves and the medical workers wearing face masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune An Asante worker, right, hands off a set of prepared needles to another worker for administration of monoclonal antibodies to a COVID-19-positive patient at a drive-thru clinic in Medford.

Asante said the Medford monoclonal antibodies drive-thru clinic is one of the first in the nation.

“We decided to open up the drive-thru clinic because the demand is huge,” said Cassy Leach, director of ambulatory quality and nursing for Asante Physician Partners.

The clinic has attracted people from as far away as Portland and Brookings, she said.

Studies predict that for every seven patients treated with the antibodies, one hospitalization will be prevented, Hagar said.

Most people with COVID-19 don’t land in the hospital. But preventing as many hospitalizations as possible reduces the strain on Rogue Valley hospitals that are bursting at the seams during the area’s worst COVID-19 surge of the pandemic.

“Our county is drowning in COVID. The hospitals are overwhelmed. Monoclonal antibodies reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 70%. It’s huge for the patients and the community,” Hagar said.

Jones said she’s happy to not only cut the risk of hospitalization for herself, but to help the hospitals in any way she can.

Her husband, Eric Jones, said he also got vaccinated in the spring. He hasn’t caught COVID-19 and drove her to the drive-thru clinic.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Eric Jones watches as a nurse gives monoclonal antibody shots to his wife, Vicky Jones, who was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Although Vicky Jones still caught the virus, the couple said they believe her symptoms could have been much worse if she hadn’t been vaccinated.

“Our niece didn’t get the shot and she spent 10 days in the hospital,” Eric Jones said. “She developed pneumonia. She’s now home on oxygen. As soon as she can, she’s going to get the shot. It takes something like that for people to open their eyes.”

Eric Jones said he saw an image of his niece online during her illness.

“We saw her on Facebook and she looked like she was dead,” he said. “The doctor told her she was a lucky girl. She was on oxygen, but not on a ventilator. She was a couple of days from being put on a ventilator, but she started to get better.”

Doctors say it’s important to start monoclonal antibodies early, when symptoms are mild.

One man who showed up for monoclonal antibodies at the drive-thru clinic was so ill that medical workers sent him instead to the hospital, where he was admitted, Leach said.

Among other criteria, patients have to be at least 12 years old, weigh at least 88 pounds, get antibodies within 10 days of their symptoms starting, have mild symptoms and not be pregnant or breastfeeding. They can’t be in the hospital already with COVID-19, or be on oxygen because of the virus.

People can qualify for the antibodies if they have conditions that put them at risk of developing severe COVID-19, including diabetes, kidney disease, a compromised immune system, heart or lung conditions and sickle cell disease. People who are 65 or older, as well as people who are overweight may also qualify.

Anyone who wants to know whether they qualify for monoclonal antibodies can call Asante’s COVID-19 hotline at 541-789-2813. Registered nurses will assess whether a person is eligible, and a doctor will make a referral to the drive-thru clinic.

Alternately, people can talk to their own doctors about whether they qualify and get a referral to the clinic.

People can’t just show up at the site.

The monoclonal antibody treatment is free. If patients have insurance, their insurance will be billed, but they’ll pay no out-of-pocket costs, Asante said.

Dana, a senior citizen who asked that her last name not be used, was recently at the drive-thru clinic and got the four antibody shots.

Because of her age, she said she received a call offering the treatment after she was diagnosed with COVID-19.

She said she was vaccinated, but caught the virus and developed cold-like symptoms and lost her sense of smell and taste.

Dana said she felt a little apprehensive and concerned about trying out the antibody treatment, but decided to go ahead.

“Our hospitals are so overcrowded and full to the maximum. If there’s anything they can do to prevent us from ending up in the hospital, we have to consider it,” she said.

Dana said after her second COVID-19 vaccination, she spent two days on the couch feeling extremely tired and lethargic. She said she still supports vaccination, and believes it is a personal choice for people.

“I understand their concerns. I’m concerned as well,” Dana said of COVID-19 vaccination. “They have to consider the possibility of how long it could take to recover and if they have to be hospitalized, whether there will be room for them. It’s always a matter of personal choice. I can’t speak for people who chose not to get vaccinated. It’s my choice for me to do this.”

Several people receiving antibody treatment at the drive-thru clinic while a Mail Tribune reporter and photographer were there declined to speak to a reporter.

Leach said medical workers at the clinic don’t ask patients their vaccination status.

The Mail Tribune asked Vicky and Eric Jones and Dana if they were willing to disclose their vaccination status, and all three agreed to do so.

Oregon National Guard Specialist Jesus Rodriguez was at the drive-thru clinic helping to greet patients, direct traffic and point people to their assigned parking spots.

He’s part of a contingent of up to 1,500 National Guard soldiers mobilized to help hospitals around the state during the COVID-19 surge. His unit is based in Klamath Falls and he previously served a one-year mission in Somalia, a strategically situated African country near the Middle East and key shipping routes.

In addition to helping at the drive-thru clinic, Rodriguez has been restocking hospital supplies, outfitting carts with supplies, filling oxygen tanks and performing other work to help respiratory therapists.

The therapists are working grueling shifts to help the surge of COVID-19 patients in Jackson and Josephine county hospitals.

National Guard soldiers with medical skills weren’t mobilized because they can’t be spared from their civilian jobs in health care, so Rodriguez and others are helping hospitals and clinics in support roles.

“We’re glad to be here and to support the community,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.