WASHINGTON — The White House is making a push Tuesday for more Covid patients to get treated with Pfizer's Paxlovid as hundreds of people in the U.S. continue to die from the coronavirus every day.
Officials said that because the drug has been underused in the fight against the pandemic, the federal government will double the number of locations where Paxlovid is available. The locations will include 40,000 pharmacies, community health centers, hospitals, urgent care centers and Veterans Affairs clinics.
The White House said it expects that as many as 10,000 of the sites could start carrying the drug as soon as this week.
“It’s pretty clear from the uptake of Paxlovid and the rate of hospitalizations and deaths over the months Paxlovid has been available that there still are some folks who could have benefited from these medications,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We can save more lives by getting this medication to more people.”
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Administration officials said the federal government will work with state and local governments to set up additional test-to-treat sites where patients can be seen by medical providers and get the drug in one location, rather than the two-step process of visiting their physicians and then picking up the prescriptions from pharmacies. There are currently 2,200 test-to-treat locations nationwide, the White House said.
Officials have been frustrated for weeks about the limited use of the drug, saying many doctors and patients probably don’t realize it is now widely available after months of being in scarce supply.
So far about 500,000 courses of the treatment have been given to patients, with the number of weekly prescriptions being given having doubled since last month, to 55,000 a week, the senior administration official said. Still, more patients could be benefiting from the treatment, the official added.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the drug in December for emergency use for high-risk people and children over age 12 who test positive after studies found that a five-day course reduced patients’ risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent. About 60 percent of adults who contract Covid would be eligible to receive the drug.
In recent weeks the Biden administration has been trying to increase its communication with doctors and the public to raise awareness about the drug and how to get it.
“A lot of providers early on, in that scarcity mindset when there were fewer courses available across the country, were really reserving this for folks who they thought would be the sickest of the sick,” the senior administration official said. “That’s why the provider education component, the provider engagement component, is so critical to this work. It’s making sure that all over the country, in every community, providers know that we’ve got Paxlovid available for their patients.”
The Biden administration has been investing heavily in Paxlovid, which costs $530 for a five-day treatment. To ensure that people have free access to the drug, President Joe Biden announced in November that the U.S. would spend $5.29 billion to buy enough pills to treat 10 million people. In January, Biden said the government would double its order.
The first half of that allotment is supposed to be delivered by the end of June, with the remaining 10 million coming by the end of September.
But it's unclear how many of those pills have been delivered to the federal government. There is only one publicly available contract between the federal government and Pfizer — 835,000 courses of Paxlovid at a cost of $442 million — which was set to be fulfilled by the end of March.
Doctors have said one of the barriers to using Paxlovid is that it has to be taken within five days of the onset of symptoms — a time early in the illness when some patients may not think they need the treatment or before they have had time to get tested and obtain prescriptions.
Use of the pill is also limited to those who are at high risk of developing severe illness.
The White House Covid coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, who started this month, will highlight the administration’s strategy at Tuesday's briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
“We need to focus on making sure that everybody who is eligible knows they’re eligible and they can get access to it, because it is very effective in treating Covid,” Psaki said Monday.