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Lee Health sees bump in COVID cases; supply of key monoclonal antibody treatment exhausted

By CJ HADDAD - | Dec 28, 2021

Lee Health’s supply of the most effective monoclonal antibody (MAB) treatment for the COVID-19 Omicron variant has been exhausted.

In an email from Lee Health officials today, the healthcare system, due to a nationwide shortage, stated they no longer can administer the treatment Sotrovimab.

“Other monoclonal antibodies have been effective against previous variants, but not Omicron,” said Lee Health spokesperson Jonathon Little in the email.

Since Sotrovimab is distributed by the federal government, officials said they are uncertain of when additional supply of the MAB treatment could be available.

“It is more important than ever to get vaccinated or get a booster shot so to protect yourself against COVID-19 during the current Omicron surge,” Little said.

Lee Health has been operating three MAB infusion centers in outpatient settings to treat COVID-19 for more than a year.

Lee Health on Tuesday reported they have seen an increase in COVID-19 patients, as the Omicron variant of the virus is present in Southwest Florida.  

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday shortened its isolation time recommendations for positive individuals, the contagious strain is still something to be wary of.  

“What we’ve seen in the last week, week-and-a-half, is a significant increase,” said Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci in a telephone interview. Lee Health on Tuesday disclosed they are caring for 59 COVID-19 patients – an increase of 69% from two weeks ago. “We’re certainly not where we were with the Delta surge (600 patients), but it’s certainly worrisome we’re seeing this trend.” 

Antonucci noted that two-thirds of their COVID-positive patients are unvaccinated, and that four individuals, three of whom are unvaccinated, are in intensive care.  

“The virus is definitely here in our community,” he said. “We suspected it would be here. We knew that Omicron spreads quite rapidly, and of course, with the influx of people coming to Southwest Florida.” 

While Antonucci said there’s still a lot to learn about Omicron, recurring indicators of this strain include upper-repertory ailments such as nasal congestion, a minor cough, sore throat — “cold-type” symptoms. “And less severe lung inflammation than we saw with Delta,” Antonucci said. “Again, it’s early in the course, but we’re seeing those type of symptoms more than the severe symptoms we saw with Delta.” 

As far as what Lee Health is expecting in the near future in terms of a “wave” or “peak” of Omicron, Antonucci said it’s too hard to tell what may be on the horizon. He pointed out the recent events in South Africa, where they experienced a rapid increase in positive tests, and then a rapid drop shortly after.  

“We’re hoping that we will see that drop, we just don’t know where that peak is going to be,” Antonucci said. “We’re just going to continue to watch it carefully and be ready.” 

Based on information from the CDC and Florida Department of Health, 63.17% of Lee County residents are vaccinated. Antonucci said that with an increased number of individuals having received their immunization since the last surge, he’s hopeful it could help curve the spread in the community.  

The Omicron variant also is showing signs of being a much “quicker” experience than strain of the past, as the CDC shortened its recommended time for isolation from 10 days to five days, if asymptomatic, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others. CDC officials said the change is motivated by “science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.” 

 CDC officials said those who test positive should isolate for five days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for five days to minimize the risk of infecting others.  

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a release. “CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.” 

Antonucci’s message to county residents is what it’s been throughout the entire pandemic.

“Everything we can do to prevent serious illness and hospitalization, we should be doing,” he said. “We know that vaccination provides a reasonable amount of protection against hospitalization and severe disease – and especially boosting does.  

“In addition, the common sense measures we’ve talked about since the beginning: distancing, hand washing, wearing masks, will all help to prevent spreading this disease even more.” 

The CDC on Dec. 23 also updated its guidance for isolation and quarantine for healthcare workers, decreasing their isolation time after infection with COVID-19. 

The update states that healthcare workers with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic can return to work after seven days with a negative test, and that isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages. Healthcare workers who have received all recommended COVID-19 vaccine doses, including a booster, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures. 

“As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to Omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” Walensky said in a release. “Our goal is to keep healthcare personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our healthcare facilities. Our priority, remains prevention–and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.” 

Antonucci said that Lee Health has been able to keep staffing levels stable, even with a higher-than-normal census over the last year-plus, thanks to traveling nurses. The CDC recommendation also states that a negative test is not required to return to work after a five-day isolation period if the individual is fully vaccinated.  

“What we’ve discovered is that sometimes a test can stay positive longer after (the individual) is actually infectious,” Antonucci said. “We’re looking for symptomatology.” 


Vax clinic at Gulf Coast to close  

Lee Health will close its COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic at Gulf Coast Medical Center, with its last day in operation being Wednesday.  

The clinic opened a year ago and has administered nearly 150,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Lee Health officials announcing the clinic’s closure on Monday said with the vaccine in abundant supply at hundreds of locations across the region, the county’s largest healthcare system is integrating its vaccine efforts into normal daily operations.  

“Operating the clinic was a massive undertaking made possible by a team of dedicated Lee Health staff members who were eager to help protect our community,” said Lee Health spokesperson Jonathon Little in the email.  

At Lee Health, the COVID-19 vaccine is available for ages 5-17 in Lee Physician Group pediatric offices and a mobile clinic that travels around the community. The vaccine will be available for adults at select retail pharmacies in the health system following the closure of the clinic at Gulf Coast, officials said. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include information on the monoclonal treatment supply.