SF health officials return thousands of life-saving COVID drugs, plead with public to use them – San Francisco Chronicle

Pfizer’s new Paxlovid tablets, shown here in March, 2022, are part of President Biden’s strategy to enable pharmacies, long-term care facilities and community health centers to give out pills that combat COVID-19.
San Francisco has returned thousands of doses of life-saving COVID-19 drugs to the state because the people who could have used them didn’t know the treatment was available, public health officials said Wednesday.
Now city officials are sounding an urgent alert to let people know about the antiviral drugs, which must be taken within five days after the onset of COVID symptoms.
Although physicians typically write prescriptions, many patients never let their doctors know they’ve tested positive for COVID, or tell them when it’s already too late to benefit from the pills.
Health officials said that anyone who tests positive for COVID and is at high risk for a serious case should immediately contact a health care provider and ask for one of the drugs, called Paxlovid and Molnupiravir, which stop the virus from spreading in the body. (Molnupiravir cannot be taken during pregnancy or breastfeeding.)
Those eligible include people who are unvaccinated or haven’t had a booster shot, as well as pregnant women, people at least 65 years old, and anyone with a medical condition that puts them at high risk for serious illness.
“Time is of the essence,” the health department said, adding that people who need the drugs must take them as soon as possible.
The antivirals Paxlovid from Pfizer and Molnupiravir from Merck were described as pandemic game-changers after being approved for emergency use in December. Suddenly, people at risk for serious illness or death could take an effective pill at home that was easier and cheaper than getting a monoclonal antibody infusion in the hospital.
But, at first, the new drugs were also in short supply.
Not anymore, Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer, told The Chronicle.
“My goal is to prevent severe illness and avert deaths from COVID-19,” Philip said, noting that the antiviral drugs “are yet another fantastic tool we have. They won’t prevent infection, but for someone who does test positive (for the coronavirus), being aware of these medicines can be potentially life saving.”
Philip urged people who are eligible for the drugs to contact their health care provider right away or call the city’s COVID Resource Center at 628-652-2700. People can also visit this website for a list of federal “Test to Treat” locations where the drugs are offered on the spot to people who test positive.
The pills are allocated by the federal government to states, and from there to local health departments.
The city has received 5,988 doses this year — and had to return nearly 60% of them before they expired, Philip said. That’s roughly 3,500 doses.
The expectation is that the drugs were then provided to other counties or states where they could be used, Philip said.
However, it’s not unknown for precious medical supplies to be tossed.
In October, The Chronicle reported that California health care workers had thrown out nearly 645,000 COVID vaccines, or an average of 58,614 a month, because the doses had expired, been opened before they could be used, or mishandled, officials said at the time.
On Wednesday, state health officials said they did not immediately know how many doses of the antiviral drugs had been returned to the state, or how many counties had done so.
A brief survey of some Bay Area counties found mixed reports. The Santa Clara County Department of Public Health, for example, said it had not returned any antiviral doses.
Contra Costa’s health department, however, has seen lower than expected use of Paxlovid and has also started a public awareness campaign to get the drugs to the people who may need them, a county spokesperson said.
Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: nasimov@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NanetteAsimov
Nanette covers California’s public universities – the University of California and California State University – as well as community colleges and private universities. She’s written about sexual misconduct at UC and Stanford, the precarious state of accreditation at City College of San Francisco, and what happens when the UC Berkeley student government discovers a gay rights opponent in its midst. She has exposed a private art college where students rack up massive levels of debt (one student’s topped $400k), and covered audits peering into UC finances, education lawsuits and countless student protests.

But writing about higher education also means getting a look at the brainy creations of students and faculty: Robotic suits that help paralyzed people walk. Online collections of folk songs going back hundreds of years. And innovations touching on everything from virtual reality to baseball.

Nanette is also covering the COVID-19 pandemic and served as health editor during the first six months of the crisis, which quickly ended her brief tenure as interim investigations editor.

Previously, Nanette covered K-12 education. Her stories led to changes in charter school laws, prompted a ban on Scientology in California public schools, and exposed cheating and censorship in testing.

A past president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, Nanette has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in sociology from Queens College. She speaks English and Spanish.

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