JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday announced a new rapid response unit in downtown Jacksonville that will administer monoclonal antibody treatment to high-risk residents in the early stages of a COVID-19 infection.
It’s part of the state’s effort to expand monoclonal antibody treatments across Florida as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.
Hospitals in Northeast Florida have been stressed amid the surge of the coronavirus delta variant, and DeSantis said the treatment that has emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one of the best ways to reduce hospitalizations in the state outside of getting vaccinated.
“This is the best, the best shot we’ve got right now to keep people out of the hospital and keep them safe,” he said.
DeSantis said he was also forming strike teams to take them to nursing homes, like he did last year when mass testing began. He also said the state’s surgeon general will issue an order to make certain sites available to people who meet certain criteria where they won’t need a doctor prescription.
Across the state, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 continued to rise Thursday from 15,071 to 15,358 patients. More than 3,200 of those patients are in ICUs, taking up about 49% of the intensive care unit beds. Those hospitalized are largely unvaccinated and younger than those seen in hospitals during last summer’s surge, doctors have said.
Emergency departments in some areas are so overcrowded that doctors are sending patients home with small, portable pulse oximeters and oxygen so they can free up beds for sicker patients.
The pop-up site, located on East Bay Street on the grassy former home of the Duval County Courthouse, will begin administering the treatments to qualified patients starting at 12 p.m.
“This antibody treatment, as the governor said, is not well known by the community,” said Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. “It’s effective, it works. I was on a call yesterday with all of the hospital CEOs in town and we had this discussion. People need to know this exists. They need to know that this unit is here if they don’t have access to their health care provider.”
The treatment uses monoclonal antibodies, which are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful viruses like the coronavirus. They are effective in providing patients that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 some relief from the symptoms, but only if hospitals have the resources and staff to administer it. DeSantis mentioned good candidates were elderly people and those with chronic kidney disease, diabetes, morbid obesity and sickle cell.
“You want to get this as soon as possible if you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Dr. Mohammed Reza, an infectious disease expert, told News4Jax. “It’s available for people who are symptomatic. There are risk qualifications that whatever facility you are getting it from will determine if you are a candidate for it. The earlier the better.”
DeSantis, who opposes mask mandates in schools and has barred businesses and municipalities from requiring proof of vaccination, said he believes if more people had known about the treatment option, Florida hospitalizations would not have reached record levels in recent weeks.
DeSantis referenced the monoclonal treatment made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the same treatment that former President Donald Trump once called a “cure” for COVID-19 after it helped him beat the virus.
DeSantis said “a lot more” Regeneron will be coming to Florida soon.
Right now, only people with referrals from their doctors are able to receive the treatment at the Jacksonville center but DeSantis said he hopes to expand access in the coming weeks.
The City of Jacksonville told News4Jax it is working to move the facility away from the old courthouse lot and into the Main Library downtown next week. When it goes into the library the city expects the patient capacity to either triple or quadruple.
At the site, there’s a 20 minute preparation time and patients will be given injections with four syringes, two in the love handles and two in the backs of each arm.
Ascension St. Vincent’s Southside Hospital is one local hospital already offering the treatment.