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Health experts hopeful after approval of at-home COVID pills for high-risk patients

Pfizer and Merck’s easy-to-use COVID-19 pills received emergency approval by the FDA and could be available in the next few weeks.

INDIANAPOLIS — As the omicron variant becomes the dominant strain in the U.S., more treatments are on the way.  

Last week, Pfizer and Merck’s easy-to-use COVID-19 pills were given emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

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It’s the first treatment of its kind that allows people to take an antiviral pill regimen at home to help prevent severe COVID symptoms.  

Both pill regimens are shown to cut down on hospitalizations and death among high-risk COVID-19 patients by nearly 90% for Pfizer’s Paxlovid and about 30% for Merck’s Malnupiravir. 

“It’s an opportunity to treat and manage the symptoms and severity of COVID in a way that we haven’t really had access to previously,” said Dr. Kara Cecil, assistant professor of public health at UIndy. 

The catch is these pills need to be taken early within five days of symptoms starting or the effectiveness wanes.  

“The challenge, just like some of these other treatments, is we have to get people tested, diagnosed early and quickly, and then, get the medication in their hands,” said Thomas Duszynski with Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health. 

Pfizer’s pill has been approved for those 12 and older who have underlying medical conditions like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Merck’s pill is for those 18 and older with similar health conditions.  

There are also some limitations depending on what medications you are on. 

To receive a prescription, you must get approval from a doctor or health care provider.  

“If you find yourself with symptoms onset and a positive test, be very thorough in communicating what medications you are already taking,” Cecil said.  

The two antiviral pills are also believed to work against the highly contagious omicron variant, while other treatments are less effective, including some of the monoclonal antibodies. 

RELATED: Some COVID-19 therapies showing less effective against omicron variant

“So because of the way this medication works, it’s effective against omicron. It doesn’t really cause a problem,” Cecil said.  

Since the pills don’t require an injection or IV, the hope is this oral treatment will ease the burden on hospitals and health care workers. 

But experts remind Hoosiers the pill isn’t a replacement for the vaccine.  

“Being able to manage mild to moderate COVID in patients that are high-risk at home really does help us maintain our capacity in the hospitals,” Cecil said.  

The Indiana Department of Health said they expect orders of both Pfizer and Merck’s pills to arrive this week after placing an order late last week.  

The pills are shipped directly from the manufacturers to providers and allocated by the state. 

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