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Monoclonal antibodies proving to be an effective COVID-19 treatment, but it’s not a vaccine substitute

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Monoclonal antibodies are pictured at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. UCHealth/Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially front-line health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.

“It has been hard in general for nursing since COVID started,” Keating said. “I was feeling a little disheartened.”

She was looking for a bit of a change, potentially to something that was more rewarding and made her feel like she was making a difference. When the hospital was looking for volunteers to perform monoclonal antibody treatments for patients sick with COVID-19, Keating quickly raised her hand.



“I just needed a little lifting up, if you will, and this job has really done it,” Keating said. “People are so thankful when they come in and receive the antibodies. … They’re so thankful, and that’s really been a game changer for me.”

Public health officials have said the treatment is becoming a key to limiting hospitalizations at a time when just 6% of Colorado’s intensive-care beds are available.



The treatment — which essentially gives patients antibodies that vaccinated people are already making on their own — is proving to be effective: Out of 276 treatments on COVID-19 patients, officials say just a handful have ended up in the Steamboat hospital.

“It’s basically antibodies, very similar to what your body makes,” said Wes Hunter, director of pharmacy at the hospital. “It’s not a substitute for vaccines, and I think that is a really important part. But if you’re not vaccinated, and you’re exposed to COVID and at high risk, I think it’s shown that it does a pretty good job of keeping people out of the hospital.”

Hunter and the hospital’s nurse manager Sanaya Sturm said vaccination is still the best way to protect from contracting the virus, and the vaccine will start fighting the virus right away, giving patients a better chance to overcome COVID-19 without a hospital stay.

Still, for those who are not vaccinated or people with weak immune systems, Hunter said antibodies have had really good results when given within 10 days of the first symptoms. The treatment is also given to those who have been vaccinated but still contracted the virus.

The treatment is given once through an intravenous infusion that takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Patients are then monitored for an hour afterward.

“A plug to the nurses: We’ve had a lot of brave volunteers that really have taken this on, and they take a lot of pride in it,” Sturm said, adding that they are taking on additional risk by working with patients who have contracted the virus.

The earlier someone is given the treatment after testing positive for COVID-19 the better, Hunter said. Because of this, Sturm said when starting to notice symptoms, people should contact their primary care provider to see if monoclonal antibodies might be right for them.

“When folks get sick, the key is not to stay at home for five or six days before they decide to get tested or be seen by a provider because, essentially, that really narrows their window of being able to get the treatment,” Sturm said.

Even those who are younger and in good health should discuss the treatment option with their doctor, Hunter said.

While there is no cost to patients for the monoclonal antibodies, as the federal government is picking up the tab, making the antibody treatment costs much more than making a vaccine. Hunter said a vaccine is about 80% cheaper, and while access to antibodies is better than it was earlier this year, vaccines are much more available.

And Hunter said antibodies the body creates after getting the vaccine are still better than the antibodies from an infusion.

“(Self-created antibodies) are being vigilant, looking for the virus rather than waiting until you get a positive result and get sick,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we can emphasize this enough: This isn’t a substitute for the vaccine.”

But the treatment does add to the various tools available to treat people with the virus, something Hunter said providers have gotten much better at since the start of the pandemic.

“We know a lot more about how to treat these patients; it’s not just throwing the kitchen sink at them,” Hunter said.


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