COVID-19 cases in Chicago have steadily risen in recent weeks and the city is now reporting an average of 645 new cases daily.
Experts say that number is likely even higher because many people who test positive with an at-home test don’t report their status to health officials. Despite the increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID continue to remain near the lowest they’ve been since the pandemic began.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the country is “out of the pandemic phase,” but insisted COVID isn’t over. He said there are more tools available to (hopefully) limit the severity of the illness, like antiviral therapies, which should soon be easier for high-risk people to access. In Illinois, these treatments were difficult to find during the omicron surge in January, but now they can be found at more than 800 locations throughout the state with a doctor’s prescription.
The Biden administration announced this week it is taking steps to expand the availability of the COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid, produced by Pfizer. The treatment was first approved in December.
“We now have plenty available and anybody who is eligible, anybody who has high risk, should be getting Paxlovid,” said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
In Illinois, “the supply that we have on hand is exceeding the current demand,” said Dr. Justin Moore, an infectious diseases clinical pharmacist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
“Early on, we were very limited in terms of which pharmacies actually carried it, but that has expanded quite a bit,” Moore said. “Granted, it’s not every pharmacy, but it’s definitely an increased number.”
Moore said Illinoisians with risk factors such as heart disease, immunosuppression or obesity that could put them at a higher probability of being hospitalized with a severe case of COVID should reach out to a health care provider if they test positive. Right now, the first step for people seeking the COVID treatments is to call their primary care provider and get a prescription, which can often be done via a phone call or televisit.
Moore said there are currently about 800 pharmacies statewide where the treatments are available.
In addition to Paxlovid, there’s also Lagevrio, an antiviral pill produced by Merck and an approved in-home monoclonal antibody treatment.
“I would say, in most cases, for those high-risk individuals, the benefit of treatment outweighs the risk of not doing anything and potentially being hospitalized,” he said.
But the key is getting tested and getting a prescription quickly.
Paxlovid, when administered within five days of symptoms appearing, has been proven to bring about a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease. Moore said Lagevrio doesn’t show the same level of risk reduction, only around 30%, but it can still be better than nothing.
“The point of this is to help reduce some of the viral load and prevent people from going into the more severe inflammatory phase of COVID,” Moore said. “In addition to vaccines, which are keeping people from those severe presentations and hospitalizations, we have this extra layer of support, which not only helps patients, but obviously helps our health care systems from being overwhelmed.”
The Biden administration is also working to expand the number of test-to-treat sites. Those provide a one-stop shop for those with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested for the virus, consult with a medical professional if they’re positive and fill a prescription for Paxlovid on site. Currently there are 2,200 locations nationwide, including dozens in Chicago, with plans for more sites to come online in the coming weeks.
The test-to-treat concept launched in March, but hasn’t been smooth sailing. When Axios reporter Monica Eng, formerly of WBEZ, tested positive last month, she had a hard time finding a participating pharmacy that even knew about the program.
WBEZ called a handful of allegedly participating pharmacies this week with mixed results. A downtown Walgreens said they have Paxlovid in stock and you could get a COVID test and a prescription if needed on the spot, but another location in Bronzeville said they haven’t received the drug despite being on the list. At participating CVS locations, an automatic recording said a prescription from a doctor was needed to access the treatments.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s drug for adults and children age 12 or older with a positive COVID-19 test and early symptoms who face the highest risk of severe outcomes. The drug is not recommended for patients with severe kidney or liver problems.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.