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Doctors credit vaccinations, antibody treatments for drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations

Posted October 26, 2021 7:11 p.m. EDT
Updated October 26, 2021 7:53 p.m. EDT

— For the first time since Aug. 1, fewer than 1,500 people were being treated for COVID-19 in North Carolina hospitals on Tuesday.

While COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped by 62 percent statewide in the last eight weeks, Triangle hospitals have seen an ever larger decline. Across WakeMed, Duke University Health System and UNC Health hospitals, the number of COVID-19 patients has fallen by two-thirds since the end of August, from 785 to 269.

“We are seeing a slow, steady decrease in our in-patient COVID patients," said Dr. Lisa Pickett, chief medical officer at Duke University Hospital, in Durham. “We’ll celebrate any decrease, but we do want to see a continued decease, because one illness and one death is too many.”

"Things are better than they were a couple of weeks ago. We are not seeing as many new COVID cases come in through our emergency department," said Dr. Linda Butler, chief medical officer at UNC Rex Hospital, in Raleigh.

Butler said five COVID-19 patients are in Rex Hospital's intensive care unit, but nine others who are no longer considered infected remain in the ICU because they continue to have medical problems. The coronavirus' delta variant made people sicker than previous versions of the virus, she said.

“Some patients have been there for two months. It really is demoralizing to the staff when you are taking care of someone for two months, you know the family and you still can’t have them survive the illness," she said. "So, we have people staying for two months and still dying."

To help people before they get to that point, WakeMed obtained a federal grant to set up monoclonal antibody treatment centers at its main campus in east Raleigh, as well as facilities in Cary and north Raleigh. A fourth location is expected to open at WakeMed Garner Healthplex next week.

The antibodies are an "artificial protein that basically attacks COVID," kick-starting a patient's immune system, said Dr. David Kirk, WakeMed's associate chief medical officer. A doctor's referral isn't needed, and people who test positive for the virus and begin to show symptoms can call WakeMed at 919-350-9590 to see if they qualify and schedule appointments.

“Typically, the monoclonal infusions, when they are started early enough, decreases risk of death and hospitalization by about 70 percent," Kirk said. “If you are sick enough to come into the hospital or sick enough to need oxygen, this is not for you. It has to be before then. It’s very similar to how we use Tamiflu for influenza."

The antibody treatments are only part of the reason COVID-related hospitalizations have been waning, the physicians said.

“I think it’s a combination of those who have been ill with COVID and recovered, thankfully, as well as those with those who are being vaccinated," Pickett said. "We are slowly inching up towards more and more immunity, so it drives the amount of virus down overall.”

“We are still hoping those who haven’t been vaccinated will go ahead and [get] vaccinated," Butler said. "With a lot of the employer mandates, people are going to run out of places where they can work if they are not immunized."

Although predictive models show coronavirus infections will continue to decline in the U.S. through the end of November, the physicians say they worry about another surge after that.

“Hopefully, people will get their flu vaccine, they will get their COVID vaccine, and they’ll remember all the hand-washing principles that were out there last winter," Butler said.

“When winter has come in, and everyone is clustered indoors, and airborne viruses like COVID spread again, [we want to be] ready to make sure everyone has access to this therapy," Kirk said of the antibody treatments.

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