'It is not a replacement for vaccination': Wisconsin medical experts encourage new antiviral drug for high risk Covid patients

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The White House is currently working to make a pill that treats Covid-19 available to millions of Americans.

Currently, Pfizer's Paxlovid is available at roughly 20,000 distribution sites nationwide. In the coming weeks, the goal is to double the number of pharmacies providing the drug.

"We need to focus on making sure that everybody who is eligible knows they're eligible," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. "And they can get access to it, because it is very effective in treating Covid."

On Friday, the World Health Organization strongly recommended Paxlovid for mild and moderate Covid-19 patients at the highest risk of hospital admission. Recent studies show that the drug has reduced Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths by about 90%.

"The whole purpose within the medical community and even the White House, right now, is just try to share this information with the general community and remind physicians that these treatments are available," explained Jim Davis, an infectious disease expert at Ascension Wisconsin. "It's very important for patients who test positive to please inform your treatment team."

According to Davis, the drug is in great supply in the Badger State. An interactive map on the DHS website shows roughly 30 pharmacies in Milwaukee County alone have the drug on the shelves. It is free but must be prescribed by a medical professional.

"This agent needs to be used within five days for it to be effective," Davis explained. "Many patients do an at-home test and say, 'You know what? I don't feel that bad. I'm not going to call my doctor just yet.' Then on day seven, they really start to not feel well and struggle. In those situations it's too late to use this medication."

Davis says it's important for high-risk patients, including those who aren't vaccinated or those that are immune suppressed, to self-advocate and inform their doctor if and when they test positive for Covid-19.

"If they test at home, they test positive, or even if they test at a site that their physician does not have access to, they need to let that physician know immediately if they are a high-risk patient and they have tested positive," Davis said. "That way, we have the opportunity to give this five-day course of medication, which is provided at no cost from the federal government, to help minimize the risk of developing severe disease."

As for why the drug is in such high supply, Doctor Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Diseases, says a few barriers have complicated the regular use of the drug, including the time it takes to set up systems and electronic medical records to develop pathways to encourage physicians and patients to consider Paxlovid.

"It has some complicating factors that might make some prescribers hesitant," explained Dr. Westergaard. "It has a lot of drug/drug interactions, so before prescribing it to someone, particularly someone who has a lot of medical problems and is on other medications, other prescription medications, it's important to either consult with a pharmacist or use a resource to look up to make sure none of the medicines that the patient's currently taking can interact in an unpredictable way or dangerous way with Paxlovid."

Dr. Westergaard says he's hopeful that as the field catches up, it will become a more routine part of care.

Despite the medicine's effectiveness and availability, Davis says it is not substitute for the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Vaccination, to date, is our best chance to prevent you from having severe illness," Davis said. "We do have a new strain of the virus that's going around, it's called the Omicron BA.2 variant. Even if you get sick with that variant, the chance of you developing severe disease is greatly diminished when you are vaccinated."

The hope is that if people are diagnosed with Covid-19, drugs like Paxlovid will be able to keep those high-risk patients out of the hospital and recovering at home.

"It should help to lessen the burden on the health care system," Davis explained. "If we can keep patients well enough to be at home to recover from their Covid-19, it helps the health care system out immensely."

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