Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Eckert was treated at Homer Medical Center.
Judith Eckert hadn’t fully grasped how badly the COVID-19 delta variant was affecting her body until she had a FaceTime call with her three daughters before going to the emergency room to receive a monoclonal antibody treatment.
“Mom, do you have an advanced directive?” her daughter asked.
Hearing her daughter ask if she was prepared for someone else to make her medical decisions if she couldn’t, however, made her understand just how bad her condition really was. It was apparent even over the phone.
“She knew how bad I was, and it was only day three,” Eckert said.
What started out as a sore throat after returning home from Florida with her husband from an Elk convention quickly morphed into the virus that has ravaged the world. While both her and her husband were fully vaccinated, the delta variant quickly overtook Eckert.
“I had pains all over, aching pains. I was dizzy, and then it felt like I had fire jetting through my eyeballs,” Eckert said. “I was going into full blown COVID, and it sounded like I was under water.”
Had it not been for the fast acting nurses, and specifically nurse practitioner Lisa Milam, at Homer Medical Center who helped Eckert get the monoclonal antibody treatment almost immediately when her positive test came through, Eckert doesn’t know what would have happened.
Eckert said her symptoms started out so mild that she was surprised to even hear she had COVID-19 and confused because she was vaccinated. However, her symptoms quickly developed from a sore throat to almost every COVID-19 symptom in the book.
Eckert, 62, describes herself as a walking medical PowerPoint because of the several autoimmune disorders and illnesses she has, so she knew she needed to get help from her doctor quickly to stop what was causing her sickness.
“I know I don’t have an immune system, basically,” she said. “It’s awful.”
Her daughter, a health care professional in California, quickly recognized the symptoms while on the phone with Eckert and encouraged her mom to seek medical attention. With the help of the Mayo Clinic’s patient resources, Eckert’s medical records were able to help the nurses understand how high risk of a patient she was.
“I get a phone call the next morning and the nurse says ‘You’ve tested positive,’” Eckert recounted. “It was so weird. It was a shock, right, because I’m double vaccinated. I didn’t think I was that sick. I still wasn’t feeling good that morning, but it started getting worse.”
Eckert was offered the chance to receive a monoclonal antibody infusion at South Peninsula Hospital to prevent her symptoms from worsening and she readily accepted.
”I didn’t think that I was really that sick yet, but later in the day, what ended up happening is I got so sick,” Eckert stressed. “You know how you’re so sick that you just don’t care? You just lay there? I was there. Kind of like if I die right now, I’m good.”
But after her REGEN-COV infusion — the brand name of the infusion — she felt like a completely new person.
“You know that scene in ‘Back to the Future’ where Michael J. Fox couldn’t see his hand and then it was coming back?” Eckert asked. “That’s how I felt. I felt like I was going away and (the infusion) was bringing me back. I could feel it.”
“When I walked out of the ER,” she continued, “I was looking out over Kachemak Bay and the glaciers and that alpine glow with how beautiful it looks just after midnight, and I literally could have danced in the streets. It was a total antidote for me.”
Even today, she says she feels just fine and hasn’t experienced any side effects or complications from COVID-19 or the antibody treatment.
“I am so thankful and grateful for them,” Eckert said of the health care professionals who helped her. “This is just little ol’ Homer, you know? And I got world class health care.”
South Peninsula Hospital began offering outpatient monoclonal antibody infusions as a treatment for COVID-19 patients to help stop worsening symptoms before it’s too late around eight months ago, according to Derotha Ferraro, South Peninsula Hospital public information officer.
Since July 1, the hospital has administered almost 200 monoclonal antibody treatments.
“Offering the monoclonal antibody infusion is another chapter in the hospital’s response to COVID,” Ferraro said. “Just as from day one we’ve offered testing seven days a week because testing is one of the tools to manage the outbreak, this also is too. From the time the FDA granted emergency used authorization for (the infusions) …, it’s been on our radar and available to use when appropriate.”
According to CombatCOVID, a Department of Health and Social Service COVID-19 resource, monoclonal antibody infusions can help lower the viral load of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a person’s system to help improve COVID-19 symptoms and decrease the likelihood of hospitalization.
Dr. Christy Tuomi, South Peninsula Hospital infection prevention physician and Homer Medical Center family provider, explained the treatment is a way to boost the body’s natural defense against the virus.
“When your body is exposed to something foreign like the virus, your body makes antibodies to help fight the virus,” Tuomi said. “The monoclonal antibodies are (lab made) cloned antibodies that are designed to fight the virus. By administering them early on in somebody’s illness, then you can help jump start your body’s natural response to fight the virus more effectively and sooner.”
The goal, Tuomi said, is to administer the treatment before a person needs hospitalization or has long term effects.
High risk patients, such as Eckert, qualify for the treatment as they are more likely to develop worsening symptoms, disease or are likely to die because of COVID-19. According to the emergency use authorization, recipients must be 12 years and older, or at least 88 pounds. High risk patients include people who are 65 years and older, overweight, pregnant, have chronic kidney disease, have diabetes, have a weakened immune system; take immunosuppressents, have cardiovascular disease or hypertension, have chronic lung disease, have sickle cell disease, have neurodevelopmental disorders, or who are medical-related technologically-dependent people.
In the FDA emergency authorization use trial, scientists studied patients with positive COVID-19 test results with at least one high risk factor that would cause severe symptoms. When administered within three days of a positive result, the trial showed a 70% chance of reduction in COVID-19 related hospitalizations or all causes of death compared to the placebo.
Additionally, the trial assessed cases of people exposed who were asymptomatic and living in the same house as an infected patient. By taking the monoclonal antibody infusion, there was an 81% risk reduction in developing COVID-19 compared to the placebo.
“(This is) a lot of data, but overall shows that the treatment is effective in preventing severe COVID-19 requiring hospitalization and from developing COVID-19 if you are at high risk and have a high risk exposure,” Tuomi wrote of the treatment.
Tuomi said there are risks when taking the infusion, such as an allergic reaction or worsening of illness, so patients are monitored during the infusion in case a negative reaction should occur. Tuomi explained that while there are potential risks, the benefits of the infusion reducing the symptoms of COVID-19 are great.
Because of the high number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations, the antibody infusion is being offered and used more, Ferraro explained.
When Eckert received her monoclonal antibody treatment, the infusions were done in a separate section of the ER, but they are now administered in a mobile clinic, according to Ferraro. Provider referrals and appointments are required before the infusion can be administered.
Ferraro explained that the treatment is not a reason to come to the ER, and if a person is experiencing bad enough symptoms to warrant an ER visit, she said, they might not be a qualified candidate for the treatment anyhow.
Because of the success of the infusions so far and the understanding that COVID-19 will have a long term effect, South Peninsula Hospital is currently renovating the test and vaccine clinic on Bartlett Street to create a temporary monoclonal-antibody infusion clinic. The space should be open by mid-October.
Through Eckert’s experience, she hopes people will listen to their doctors, as well as her story, and take the necessary precautions to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
“I think the most important thing is to hear first hand that this works,” Eckert said.
For more information about the monoclonal antibody infusion, contact your health care provider.
Reach Sarah Knapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.