Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Unlike seven months ago when the pandemic hit, those who are sick enough to be hospitalized in New Mexico are lucky enough to have treatments that some say can shorten hospital stays and reduce the chance of dying from novel coronavirus.
Compared to the initial outbreak in March, when some COVID-19 patients received the now out-of-favor hydroxycloroquine, the latest drug combinations appear to be more effective and carry fewer side effects, said Dr. Denise Gonzales, who specializes in pulmonology and critical care medicine at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque.
But despite the new treatments, she and other doctors on the front lines at New Mexico hospitals are worried.
“So now our numbers are increasing, we’re admitting several patients each day that are COVID-positive to the ICU or to the floor,” said University of New Mexico School of Medicine’s Dr. Michelle Harkins, who is leading UNM’s continued clinical trials on the anti-viral drug, remdesivir.
“So while we have remdesivir, I think if our volume continues to rise as rapidly as it has over the last week, that has me worried. More patients being hospitalized … is what’s concerning to me.”
Harkins said UNM is treating COVID-19 patients with remdesivir while it conducts the clinical trials.
“It shortens their duration in the hospital, it improves their times of recovery and does show a mortality benefit,” Harkins said. “It’s not the magic bullet but it’s the first thing that’s really been proven. That and steroids also help and maybe the two together even more.”
Gonzales said about 317 COVID-19 patients have received remdesivir since May at Presbyterian hospitals.
“Remdesivir is used to decrease the virus effect directly. And we hit them with steroids (like dexamethasone) to decrease the body’s over-response to the viral infection.”
The two-drug combination helped President Donald Trump recover after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. He also received the antibody treatment, Regeneron, which isn’t approved for use in U.S. hospitals.
While the rate of COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico has slowed in recent months, Gonzales said she believes it is too early to say whether the new drug treatments are responsible. There’s more study to be done.
For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that a recent study showed participants with severe COVID-19 and with more mild symptoms who received remdesivir were able to be discharged from the hospital on average five days sooner than those receiving a placebo.
Yet the World Health Organization on Friday announced remdesivir didn’t shorten recovery time and “had little to no effect in reducing coronavirus deaths.”
Presbyterian Hospital is one of the New Mexico hospitals working with the Mayo Clinic in clinical trials on the use of convalescent plasma from recovered patients. Another treatment used in hospitals doesn’t involve drugs, such as patients lying prone to help breathe.
Given the steep COVID-19 case counts in New Mexico, Gonzales said last week, “the first thing we really need to do is bend that curve and decrease the rate of total infections. Because whether any of the medications work or not, that will improve the hospitalization rate and the death rate.”