JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis held a news conference in Downtown Jacksonville Thursday to announce the opening of a rapid response unit that will administer monoclonal antibodies to patients using the drug Regeneron.
DeSantis spoke about the benefits of the treatment that's credited with helping people fight the virus if given right after they test positive for COVID-19.
"There's clear benefits to this early treatment to keeping people out of the hospital and reducing mortality," DeSantis said. “This has just got to become part of the standard of care as you go forward. This is going to be with us for a long time."
DeSantis called the treatment another tool to fight a virus that isn't going away.
The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's mobile incident management unit is where the treatment will occur. It's set up on East Bay Street and opened Thursday at noon. Health care workers at the site said they treated eight people Thursday.
The state is partnering with the city to run the site. Right now, people 12 and older with underlying health conditions, or those the most vulnerable, have to get a doctor's referral to get the treatment if they've been diagnosed with COVID or exposed. It's open nine a.m. to five p.m.
In three to five days, a state representative said, they'll move the site to the downtown library to accommodate more people. When it moves, the representative said, people most likely won't need a doctor referral. There's no out of pocket charge for the treatment.
Monoclonal antibodies are lab-manufactured antibodies that function similar to the ones your own body makes in response to an infection.
There have been two products that have been approved under the Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA. 'Bamlanivimab' by the company Lilly and the other is by Regeneron.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) Director Kevin Guthrie, Duval County Health Officer Tito Rubio and FDEM Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kenneth Scheppke joined the governor at the press conference.
"I just want to say over the last year and a half we're grateful, from when the virus was first with us and we had to rapidly expand testing we didn't know what we were getting into, but we knew we needed it you got it here," Curry said. "Jacksonville had tons of access to testing. Then we got into the new year and the vaccine were rolling out, again working with you and your team vaccines readily happened and are readily accessible to our residents," he said.
"Now this antibody treatment as the governor said is not well known by the community. 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," Curry said.
Those who get Regeneron at the Jacksonville site have the option of getting four shots in the stomach, or two in the arm and two in the stomach. They will then be taken to an air-conditioned tent and observed for an hour.
The treatment is free to eligible patients, thanks to the U.S. government purchase of approximately 1.5 mm doses.
As of Thursday, Guthrie said they were able to do eight treatments every hour and a half. Friday, he said they expect to be able to do eight every 30 minutes.
Dr. Chirag Patel, Assistant Chief Medical Officer at UF Health Jacksonville, said the governor is correct in saying that the sooner someone with COVID gets this treatment, the better.
"You've contracted it," he said. "COVID's job now in your body is to make as many copies of itself as it can in order to survive. The monoclonal antibody therapy can go in there and start knocking out some of that replicating virus to reduce the amount of symptoms that you get," Patel said.
DeSantis said another goal of the site is to free up hospital space, where the treatment is usually given.
“Will having satellite monoclonal antibody clinics in the community help hospitals? Yes, absolutely it will. It will help us prevent hospitalizations," Patel said.
According to DeSantis, not many people knew about the antibody treatment.
"Some people don’t even know that this exists until they end up getting admitted to the hospital and at that point it’s almost always too late for this to be effective," he said.
“I talked to a lot of physicians who didn’t necessarily know about it ... more and more physicians are understanding it now and it was just the type of thing I do think people thought if you stress early treatment then you were telling people not to get vaccinated. It’s not an either or. Now, it’s pretty clear though that there was not as much knowledge. So, I think it’s less about access and more about knowledge," DeSantis said.
Patel said it wasn't as much about people not knowing about the treatment. He said there wasn't as much demand with the initial strain as there is now with the more contagious delta strain.
“I don't think that there was any lack of advertising that this product was available. I think that when you're dealing with an alpha variant, or anything prior to delta, there wasn't as much application for this therapy as there is now with, again, this delta variant that is so much more severe and so much more transmissible," Patel said.
"This is the most effective treatment that we've yet encountered for people who are actually infected with COVID-19," DeSantis said at the press conference.
Patel said the treatment is the most effective treatment for non-hospitalized patients, but not COVID patients overall.
“I think that it's really difficult to say one thing is more effective than another. There are numerous studies that are still in process about the effectiveness of certain treatments that we're providing to patients infected with COVID," he said.
When asked why not use other mitigation efforts to help fight COVID like mask mandates, DeSantis said certain mitigation hasn't proven to end the pandemic.
“I think the nonpharmaceutical interventions we’ve seen, remember we were promised that they’d end the pandemic, lockdowns, school closures, mandates, and it just hasn’t done that. This is a very transmissible virus," DeSantis said.
"We could sit there and say if we shut down schools it will go away. It won’t. That’s not true. It would be very damaging to society to do that and to our communities and so early treatment I think is the most effective thing you can do," he said.
DeSantis did mention that the "overwhelming majority" of the people in hospitals with COVID right now are unvaccinated.
"The vaccinated population is less likely to be admitted," he said.
Area hospitals tell First Coast News more than 90 percent of COVID patients are unvaccinated.
DeSantis announced that Florida plans to increase the availability of monoclonal antibody therapies throughout the state by opening other locations for the treatment.
“I am proud to announce the opening of this rapid response unit to offer lifesaving monoclonal antibody therapies for Floridians,” DeSantis said. “We also look forward to setting up a long-term site at the Jacksonville Public Library and additional long-term sites across the state," he said.
When Former President Donald Trump became ill with COVID and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, one of the medications in the cocktail that he received was a monoclonal antibody product by Regeneron.
DeSantis said when Trump received it, it was still experimental and the average person in 2020 was not able to access it. He said part of issue was physicians didn't necessarily know about it.
"If you do it early, this has a great chance of reducing symptoms before needing medical treatment," DeSantis said "This has got to become the standard of care."
Monoclonal antibodies are meant for people that meet certain criteria with age and weight, and those that are at high risk for severe COVID-19 cases.