Minnesota health leaders promote COVID pills as cases, hospitalizations increase

As COVID-19 cases increase, Minnesota health leaders are encouraging doctors to make patients more aware of treatment options.

Hospital leaders told FOX 9 that Jan Malcolm, the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health, sent an email on Tuesday asking them to make patients more aware of the current COVID-19 virus conditions in Minnesota and make sure treatment options, especially oral antivirals, are available for everyone who is eligible.

"We know that COVID is coming back up a little bit. It's not as high as it was for Delta and Omicron, but it certainly is getting closer to what it was last fall. But we have new treatment options that we didn't have available before," Dr. George Morris, the lead COVID-19 physician at CentraCare told FOX 9.

The COVID-19 pills have been providing a dose of optimism for patients who come to CentraCare's pharmacy in St. Cloud.

"We want to get it to the people who need it as fast as we can," pharmacist Todd Sherwood said. "They're happy with the process, happy that they can get treatment relatively quickly and easily and at no cost to them - because right now it's fully funded."

After Marlene Groetsch's 93-year-old father tested positive for COVID-19, she started feeling sick too last week. Her sister, who works at a hospital told her there were treatment options available and she was able to get antivirals prescribed to her.

"A lot of coughing on Tuesday night. Didn't really notice that much difference Wednesday, still pretty tired. But by Thursday, I was out walking. I felt really good," she said.

At first, Groetsch, like many others patients, didn't even know the pills were an option. But now her husband also has the virus, and she had such a positive experience that she encouraged him to get the pills prescribed, as well.

As COVID-19 cases increase, Minnesota health leaders are encouraging doctors to make patients more aware of treatment options.

"We just didn't do a great job of letting people know that we have plenty available now. For a while there was a shortage, and we had to limit that," Morris said.

There are two COVID pills that patients could be prescribed, Paxlovid and Molnupiravir. Morris said the drugs can decrease the risk of being hospitalized by 60 to 80 percent.

"We do not want to overwhelm the hospitals with COVID as we've seen that happen before, and we know that that has a huge impact on the other health care needs that our community has," Morris said.

But he also cautions, the pills are not a perfect system. Patients have to go through a screening first to find out if they qualify. Then, once the drugs are prescribed, patients have to take the pills within five days of showing symptoms. Pharmacists said it’s important to get tested as soon as possible.

"Sometimes when symptoms are initially onset they're so mild that they don't even test on Day 1. So sometimes by the time they come to us they're already on Day three or four and it's go time," Sherwood said.

Dr. Morris has advice for people who do test positive for the virus: "Go ahead and reach out to your health system or local pharmacy and let’s get you started on treatment."

Patients can use an at-home test as proof that they’re positive.

Groetsch said the only downside to taking the pill for her was it left an "off" taste in her mouth. But she felt that was a small price to pay to stay out of the hospital.