Starting next week, Coloradans with COVID-19 who are at high risk of developing severe illness won’t need a doctor’s referral for antibody treatments meant to keep them out of hospitals, Gov. Jared Polis announced Friday afternoon.

Polis has made expanding access to monoclonal antibodies a pillar of the state’s strategy to avoid running out of hospital beds in the coming weeks. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created versions of proteins the body produces to help fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and can reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 70% if taken early.

Hospitalizations dropped slightly on Friday, to 1,518, but facilities remained stressed. A second federal medical team is expected to arrive in Colorado next week to help fill staffing gaps in the hardest-hit hospitals.

Polis, speaking from the Colorado State Emergency Operations Center on Friday, acknowledged a trade-off between making it as easy as possible to get antibody treatments and allowing some people who don’t qualify to slip through.

The state doesn’t have enough doses for everyone who tests positive, but the honor system generally has worked well, and people without a doctor they regularly see aren’t getting antibody treatments now, he said.

“We did this before in the phased introduction of the vaccine,” he said.

To be eligible for antibody treatment, people must show they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and report that their symptoms began within the last 10 days. If a person is sick enough to be hospitalized, it’s too late for monoclonal antibodies to help.

They also must attest that have one of the following conditions:

  • Age 65 or older
  • Obesity or overweight
  • Pregnancy
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Compromised immune system
  • Heart disease or high blood pressure
  • Chronic lung disease, including moderate or severe asthma
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders (such as cerebral palsy) or complex genetic conditions
  • Reliance on medical technology (such as a breathing tube or feeding tube)

The other main strategy to avoid overrunning hospitals is to increase the number of beds available. Polis has called on the state’s hospitals and nursing homes to find a combined 500 acute-care and “step-down” beds in the next 20 days.

The problem isn’t a shortage of beds or rooms to put them, but of skilled people to care for the patients in them. The state’s staffing fusion center is working to find nurses and others for those beds, Polis said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a team to help out at Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, and coordinated another group that’s coming to Fort Collins next week.

About 20 nurses, respiratory therapists and others who work for the U.S. Department of Defense will deploy to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital. As of Thursday morning, UCHealth was caring for 377 COVID-19 patients, including 100 in its northern Colorado hospitals, said Kevin Unger, president and CEO at Poudre Valley Hospital and UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland. The team’s arrival will free up some staff to help out at nearby hospitals, in addition to easing the pressure on Poudre Valley, he said.

“We are so grateful that this team will assist us in providing exceptional care in northern Colorado,” he said in a news release. “We anticipate this additional support and other plans we already have in the works will help make a significant difference.”

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