Minn. expands access to COVID treatment as demand soars

State health officials and one of Minnesota’s largest health systems are pushing to significantly expand access in the Twin Cities metro to a promising treatment for COVID-19.

Minneapolis-based M Health Fairview is opening a clinic this week in Columbia Heights that could eventually offer up to 50 treatments per day with monoclonal antibodies, a therapy that can help high-risk patients with mild to moderate symptoms so long as they get it quickly.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is expanding hours and capacity at its clinic in St. Paul while requesting help with staffing in central Minnesota from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Taken together, treatment capacity in the Twin Cities should increase by 50%, the Health Department said in a statement to the Star Tribune in advance of an announcement expected Tuesday.

“From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve worked hard to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans at every turn,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. “That’s why we’re working to expand access to monoclonal antibody COVID-19 treatments for Minnesotans, strengthening our efforts to get Minnesotans across the state the resources they need to fight this virus.”

The state launched its clinic in October to address a persistent lack of appointments for the treatment in the metro. The shortage was forcing patients to drive more than 200 miles round trip, in some cases, in order to receive treatment.

The supply boost with the state-funded clinic has been critical, health officials say. Yet the struggle to provide enough treatment slots persists due to skyrocketing demand with Minnesota’s burgeoning COVID-19 case counts this fall, said JP Leider, a public health researcher at the University of Minnesota.

“We are approaching a crisis point of capacity in our state where there’s not enough to go around for everybody that wants it,”said Leider, who leads theMinnesota Resource Allocation Platform (MNRAP), an online systemthat connects patients with health care providers offering the treatment.

“My hope is that as the state and others look to try and create more appointment spots, that the same can happen for other hospitals across the state, including offering weekend appointments,” he said. “Because if something doesn’t happen — if capacity isn’t increased substantially by public and private resources — then we’ll get to a point where there is no other outcome than telling some folks: ‘Sorry, we know that you’re clinically eligible, but there’s not enough to go around today.'”

Minnesota still has a good supply of the antibodies, which are purchased by the federal government. Infusions were part of former President Donald Trump’s treatment regimen when he had COVID-19.

The problem has been a shortage of staff to provide the treatment, which can be administered by infusion or a series of injections. The drug is available to patients with certainrisk factors who seek treatment within 10 days of their first symptoms.

Evidence for the treatment’s ability to prevent hospitalizations and deaths has improved significantly since it was first introduced late last year under emergency use authorizations, said Dr. Andrew Olson, the chief of COVID hospital medicine at M Health Fairview.

“Given that, along with this really striking surge of patients, we decided we needed to do something different,” Olson said.

M Health Fairview has been providing the treatment through at-home infusions, but it will provide it through injections at the new clinic. Patients receive four shots in the arm or abdomen.

Whereas M Health Fairview has been providing up to 50 infusions per week, the goal with the new clinic is to boost weekly totals to around 250 treatments. The new site is not open to walk-ins; to receive treatment, people who test positive for or have been exposed to COVID-19 should contact their health care provider or visit MNRAP to request an appointment.

The Minnesota Department of Health’s clinic already is treating about 280 patients per week and hopes new growth will take the treatment counts to about 420 per week.

Duluth-based Essentia Health and St. Cloud-based CentraCare are providing close to 300 treatments per week. Rochester-based Mayo Clinic, which was the state’s first provider of monoclonal antibody infusions last year, has been significantly expanding its capacity, hitting a recent one-week record of 900 treatments.

Patients from the metro still are driving to the St. Cloud area for treatmentbecause of the shortage of appointments in the Twin Cities, said Jessica Miller, the COVID operations manager at CentraCare. She’s heard a few patients say they don’t feel well enough to make the drive.

Most who receive monoclonal antibody treatments haven’t been vaccinated, Miller said, adding that patients who opt against immunization should realize the resources for providing treatments aren’t unlimited.

“When you’re forgoing a preventative, you’re really throwing all your eggs in a basket — that resources will be available if and when you need it,” Miller said.