Arkansas, other states seek alternative COVID-19 treatments amid rise in Omicron variant
January 10-16, 2022
By Wesley Brown
After seeing the highest one-day spike of nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases ahead of the New Year’s holiday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is following the lead of other states and advocating for more at-home COVID-19 testing and treatments.
Ahead of the New Year’s holiday, Hutchinson directed the Department of Health (ADH) to acquire 1.5 million rapid at-home tests to be available for free to Arkansans. The test will be available at public local libraries, public health units, and other locations. The National Guard will be helping in the delivery of these at-home tests.
Hutchinson made his announcement on Dec. 30, the same day that ADH reported 4,978 new COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, the largest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic began. Hutchinson said the cost of these tests will be around $10 million and will be covered by existing funds available in the COVID response budget.
“If we can utilize our rapid tests in a more efficient manner across the state, that will be a benefit in early detection, early action, and also relieving some of the burdens on our health care workers,” Hutchinson said in the wake of New Year’s Day celebrations.
“I’m not canceling everything in life, but I’m also mindful of omicron,” he said. “I encourage everyone to be around vaccinated people. If they aren’t vaccinated, everyone should wear a mask and they should socially distance.”
Meanwhile, Hutchinson said that Arkansas is committed to in-class instruction at Arkansas schools in 2022, noting it is important for students to pursue education for their future and their mental health.
Hutchinson said that schools, however, should do what each district thinks is important for the safety of the school environment. He said masks are an option depending on what the district decides. The term-limited Republican governor, whose tenure expires at the end of 2022, also said Arkansas has adopted the new CDC guidelines that determine the best course of action for those with COVID or exposed to COVID.
Among several changes from the previous guidelines, the CDC has shortened the recommended time for isolation from the public to five days for people with COVID-19. For those that are asymptomatic, or their symptoms are resolving without fever for 24 hours, they should follow the recommended isolation period by wearing a mask for five days when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter.
CDC Director Michelle Walensky said the change in COVID-19 policy is motivated by science demonstrating that most SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally within the one or two days prior to onset of symptoms and two to three days after.
“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. 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,” said Walensky. “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.”
Earlier on Dec. 23, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that SARS-CoV-2 viral variants, including Omicron, may be associated with resistance to monoclonal antibodies.
However, CDC and other HHS officials said health care providers pause allocation of some monoclonal therapies used to treat patients who test positive for COVID. Allocations of bamlanivimab and etesevimab together, etesevimab alone, and REGEN-COV have been paused pending updated data from the CDC.
According to the FDA and ASPR, these monoclonal antibodies may not work against current circulating COVID variants, including Omicron, which continues to increase across the U.S. ASPR and FDA officials said they will continue to work with sister HHS agencies at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health on surveillance of variants that may impact the use of the monoclonal antibody therapies authorized for emergency use.
“The situation varies in different geographic regions and different health care facilities, and there may be circumstances, such as lower frequency of Omicron in a region and limited supply of alternative treatment options, in which the use of existing site supply of these therapeutics is clinically appropriate,” ASPR and FDA said in a joint statement. “We are working to make available the most updated information to health care providers and provide them with appropriate flexibility to provide the best care for their patients. As additional data become available, we will provide updates and further recommendations and consider if additional actions are warranted.”
Monoclonal antibody therapy is a way of treating COVID-19 for people who have tested positive, have had mild symptoms for seven days or less, and are at high risk for developing more serious symptoms. Some critics of the Biden administration, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have called on the CDC to send more shipments of sotrovimab, as well as REGN-COV2 and bamlanivimab, antibody treatments that have proved effective against other COVID-19 variants.
In a related matter, Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies will begin dispensing the authorized COVID antiviral medication, Paxlovid and Molnupiravir in Arkansas through the U.S. Federal Retail Pharmacy Therapeutics Program. On Dec. 30, the Bentonville retail giant said select Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies are receiving limited supplies of the COVID-19 antiviral medication. The medication is only available with a prescription from a healthcare provider.
Walmart said it worked closely with the federal government and state health departments to select locations where states determined the treatment was needed most. While initial treatment supply is limited, Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies stand ready to help expand treatment access nationwide.
“We are committed to working with our state and federal partners to provide access to new treatment options like authorized COVID-19 antiviral medications, as they become available,” said Kevin Host, senior vice president of pharmacy. “This offers customers the option to recover at home and helps reduce the burden on our hospitals and communities. As we have since the beginning of the pandemic, we’re proud to support our communities through everyday essentials, healthy food, vaccines, medication and other health care needs as we all work together to weather the pandemic.”
Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies will continue to support states and the federal government to help increase the access and availability of authorized COVID-19 antiviral medication and COVID-19 vaccines, company officials said. Walmart will also continue to make flu vaccines and other preventative vaccines available. To stay up-to-date on how Walmart and Sam’s Club are supporting the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, visit https://corporate.walmart.com/covid-vaccine.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences on Jan. 4 to welcome 12 Arkansas National Guard soldiers who were assisting with COVID-19 testing.