‘That saved my life’ | Monoclonal antibody therapy helping reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations
Julie Metcalfe cried when she learned she had tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s the diagnosis the Georgetown resident had feared for nearly a year. With severe asthma that can land her in the hospital for days when triggered, she didn’t want to take any chances with another attack on her respiratory system from COVID-19.
“I basically collapsed to the floor and started crying,” Metcalfe said, recalling the moment she learned her COVID-19 test result at Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital. “When you hear the words, ‘You tested positive,’ everything I had been stressed out and worried about since January of last year just burst out.
“There was no doubt in my mind that if I got COVID, I would end up in the hospital.”
But thanks to a promising treatment offered at Tidelands Health, Metcalfe, 62, was never hospitalized because of the virus.
The same day she tested positive for COVID-19, Metcalfe received the monoclonal antibody therapy bamlanivimab at Tidelands Georgetown. The treatment, which is administered through an hour-long infusion, has been successful in helping recently diagnosed COVID-19-positive individuals – especially those who are older or have certain chronic medical conditions - avoid hospitalization.
When Metcalfe learned she was a candidate for monoclonal antibody therapy, her tears brought on by fear were replaced with peace of mind.
“I was happy because I knew it was something that would help me,” Metcalfe said. “That saved my life. I thank my lucky stars every day that this hospital had it.”
Determined to offer it
Tidelands Health was one of the first dozen hospitals in South Carolina to offer monoclonal antibody therapy after the drug received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 9.
Bamlanivimab isn’t for everyone who tests positive for COVID-19. It is used for the treatment of patients ages 12 and older with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 or hospitalization, including those 65 and older or those with certain chronic medical conditions. The antibody therapy isn’t intended for COVID-19 patients who are already hospitalized or require oxygen therapy.
Administering the treatment is a complex process but one Tidelands Health has embraced – even while caring for record numbers of COVID-19 patients and preparing to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine. Because the treatment may help keep COVID-19-positive individuals from getting sicker, offering it locally is a way to reduce admissions to hospitals that are already full.
“We really didn’t know how we were going to make it happen,” said Dr. George Wilkinson, who is overseeing the infusion treatment process. “We created an entirely new unit from scratch in an incredibly short time. It really has been a blessing.”
It took some maneuvering, but Tidelands Health was determined to find the physical space and staff to offer the therapy.
“At the same time we were standing up the bamlanivimab clinic, we were caring for a surge of patients in our hospitals,” said John LaRochelle, vice president of operations at Tidelands Health. “The main thing with the monoclonal antibody treatment – it keeps people out of the hospital. And that’s exactly what we want.”
In addition to administering bamlanivimab in its emergency departments in Georgetown and Murrells Inlet as soon as a person tests positive for COVID-19, Tidelands Health has established a dedicated infusion clinic in Murrells Inlet where COVID-19-positive patients receive the drug.
How the treatment works
Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off viruses. Bamlanivimab is a monoclonal antibody specifically designed to block the COVID-19 virus’ attachment and entry into human cells.
Patients receive the treatment through an hour-long infusion, followed by observation for an hour to monitor for any possible symptoms, which could include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, itching and vomiting.
Metcalfe said she didn’t experience any symptoms from the treatment; very few side effects have occurred in individuals receiving the treatment. She continued to have fatigue and cold-like symptoms from COVID-19 for a couple of days, but she didn’t get worse.
“The possible side effects meant nothing to me, because I knew what would happen if I did get COVID-19,” she said. “I got blessed by this infusion.”
Since Tidelands Health began offering bamlanivimab in December, the health system has administered the treatment to more than 340 patients. Patients who qualify for the therapy are referred by their physician after testing positive for COVID-19.
The treatment is in such high demand that Tidelands Health has added more infusion stations in the designated infusion clinic and expanded operations to six days a week, as needed.
“The treatment is working incredibly well,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
Dr. Wilkinson encourages those who test positive for COVID-19 and have certain chronic medical conditions to know that there is a treatment option available to help keep them from ending up hospitalized because of the virus.
Metcalfe was surprised and gratified to learn that such a groundbreaking treatment is available close to home. Her husband also received antibody therapy and recovered from COVID-19 without hospitalization.
“We both think our lives were spared because of this monoclonal antibody treatment,” Metcalfe said.