DALTON, Ga. — More than 400 people have been injected with monoclonal antibodies in Dalton over the past week as health officials and city leaders attempt to mitigate the late summer surge of COVID-19 that has overwhelmed North Georgia hospitals and schools.
The treatment, commonly referred to as the brand name Regeneron, can be given to early diagnosed COVID-19 patients and has been shown to reduce hospitalizations or deaths when administered within seven days of the first onset of illness.
In the past, the treatment was administered intravenously and on an outpatient basis only. That changed in June when it became possible to administer through a series of four injections.
Regeneron treatments then became much more widely available. Annalee Harlan, a Dalton City Council member and former paramedic who owns and operates a local hospice company, immediately began to push for the city to get involved in the treatments.
By the end of August, the convention center parking lot in Dalton had been transformed into a drive-through clinic, and local firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and volunteers were charged with administering the injections. Thanks to a partnership with AmericsourceBergen, the therapy's distributor, Harlan said there was "no outside expense for the procurement of the drug" on the part of the city. The cost of labor, syringes and other materials used to administer the treatment will come out of the city of Dalton's general fund, though city spokesperson Bruce Frazier said the exact dollar amount that will be spent is not yet known.
Harlan herself helps out on a daily basis at the clinic, overseeing operations and administering shots whenever needed. Even so, some residents — and even some of the people who have already received the treatment — are unsure about what monoclonal antibodies do and how well they work.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of Regeneron's treatment for patients 12 or older through an emergency use authorization on Nov. 21. The injections are intended to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms in early stage patients who have tested positive.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the monoclonal antibodies in the Regeneron injections mimic the immune system's ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses. The antibodies, specifically designed to block the virus' attachment and entry into human cells, have been shown to prevent serious illness and reduce hospitalizations by up to 70%. They do not, however, cure COVID-19. They also do not serve as a defense against it in the way a vaccine does.
"We don't want people thinking of this as an alternative to a vaccine," Harlan said. "This is really meant to help us ease the burden our local hospitals are facing and get people well enough so that they can get the vaccine later."
A doctor's referral is not needed for the Dalton clinic, only a positive COVID-19 test result.
Harlan said the decision to offer the drug without a doctor's recommendation came down to urgency and need. She said the city has been working alongside doctors and medical professionals from Hamilton Medical Center ever since the clinic was just an idea and that the common view among them all is that no primary care physician would tell a COVID-19-positive patient not to get this treatment. Northwest Georgia Health District Director Dr. Gary Voccio said the same on Friday.
"If you're eligible and you've had symptoms of COVID within 72 hours, people should not wait to get monoclonal antibody therapy. That's what the advice coming from a primary care doctor should and probably will be," Voccio said. "People can always speak to their doctor if that makes them more comfortable, and I encourage that over listening to other people who aren't professionals, but as a medical professional I'm telling you, it's amazing what this therapy can do for you."
Patients who have received the treatment already are touting its positive impact and encouraging others in their life to consider it if they come down with the virus.
A little over three weeks ago, engineer Greg Land, 50, began to feel achy and tired. He didn't feel terrible, but he was unvaccinated and his family urged him to go and get tested for COVID-19.
Though he didn't believe he had the virus at the time, he tested positive.
Within five to six hours of getting his test result, Land started to experience extreme sinus pressure, severe headaches and congestion. At one point, he said, the pain in his chest was so intense that he had to lay down in bed and not move for a while.
"It felt like I'd been punched over and over in the ribs and then put in a bear hug and just kept like that," Land said. "I really had a hard time breathing."
Four days after he received his test results, Land was convinced he would have to be hospitalized. He had every symptom that he'd ever heard of anyone having with COVID-19. His breathing was still constricted, and he was so tired that doing anything was a struggle. The fatigue he experienced scared him.
"You know how you can tell when your body isn't doing right? That's how it was. I could tell I was headed in the wrong direction," he said.
Then, on day five, a relative told Land about the monoclonal antibody treatments being offered in Dalton. Although the family didn't know much about the treatments at the time, Land said, he was so sure he would be hospitalized without some sort of help that he decided to try it.
Receiving the injections felt like getting any other kind of shot, according to Land. The workers administering the treatment warned him that his symptoms might worsen in the first few hours after receiving it, and they did. Land said he experienced "very hard chills" and some shaking, as well as all the symptoms he'd had before. Then, at around the six-hour mark, the tide started to turn in the other direction. He began to feel better.
By the following morning, he felt almost as well as he did before testing positive.
"I've been telling everybody about this infusion. If you get to the point where you feel like your body is declining and you're scared like I was, this can help you," Land said. "Don't wait to get to that point, but know this treatment works. I think it's a game-changer. It reversed my symptoms completely, and I absolutely believe it will keep other people out of the hospital too."
Those who receive monoclonal antibody treatment must wait 90 days before getting vaccinated, but Land said he plans to do just that as soon as he can, largely because of the success he experienced with the Regeneron treatment. He also credits his wife with his change of heart about vaccination. She is fully vaccinated and stayed at home with him throughout the entirety of his illness, something he doesn't believe could have happened without the vaccine.
"The vaccine kept her from getting sick," Land said. "I belive that now, I do."
Dorothy Baggett, 77, from nearby Murray County, Georgia, tested positive for a breakthrough case of COVID-19 two weeks ago.
Like Land, she was never hospitalized but experienced extreme symptoms, including sharp chest pain, difficulty breathing and headaches. Because of her age, Baggett said, she has paid close attention to the guidance that has been put out about COVID-19 and knew she needed to act quickly to manage her symptoms. She made an appointment at the Dalton clinic.
"I had a fever and stuffy nose, and I was struggling to breathe. My chest hurt," she said. "Within two days of getting those shots, I felt nearly completely better. My doctor said if I wasn't vaccinated, it would probably not have gone as well. I would have at least been in the hospital."
Keeping people out of the hospital is a priority in Dalton and the surrounding area, where medical centers have been swamped with an ever-increasing number of patients needing treatment and beds.
Although few primary care doctors are offering Regeneron injections in-office right now, Voccio said the Department of Public Health believes they are an excellent resource and has plans to offer them at a location in south Bartow County soon.
It is something doctors and nurses at area hospitals such as Floyd Medical Center and Cartersville Medical Center have been asking about for a while now. They already offer it to their patients, and they told Voccio people who receive monoclonal antibody treatment stay out of the hospital "in almost a 3-1 or 4-1 margin" as opposed to those who do not get the injections but have COVID-19, he said.
With intensive care units in some North Georgia hospitals reporting at over 200% capacity, Voccio said the relief Regeneron could provide is desperately needed while Georgians continue to vaccinate.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health's vaccine distribution dashboard, 36% of Whitfield County residents were fully vaccinated as of Thursday. The statewide percentage of fully vaccinated residents is somewhat higher at 44%.
At Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, 94% of all patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated as of Friday. Of those in the intensive care unit, 93% were unvaccinated.
Vaccines are still free statewide for everyone, and identification is not required when getting vaccinated.
For more information on how to get vaccinated in North Georgia, visit nghd.org or nwgapublichealth.org. Contacts for other COVID-19 vaccine providers in the area are available at vaccines.gov.
For more information about monoclonal antibody treatments or to find a Regeneron treatment clinic, visit the Department of Health and Human Services website at bit.ly/ma-locations.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.