Editorial: COVID pills hold promise, but vaccines remain vital

This image provided by Pfizer in October 2021 shows the company’s COVID-19 Paxlovid pills.

The nation received what felt like something of an early Christmas gift last week — news that the federal government on Dec. 22 approved Pfizer’s Paxlovid, the first pill to treat COVID. The Food and Drug Administration shortly afterward approved a Merck pill, molnupiravir, that is believed to be somewhat less effective but no less encouraging as another line of attack on coronavirus.

These pills hold the promise of being game-changers, but they also should be taken with a grain of salt. For as remarkably effective as Paxlovid has been shown to be at neutralizing COVID in people with symptoms, it must be taken before those symptoms get too severe. Significantly, it’s going to take some time before the pills will be widely available.

The federal government is ordering these pills by the millions and intends to make them widely available at no cost, but health care providers are still waiting on details. Dr. Slade Crowder, Community Regional Health vice president of physician enterprise operations and associate chief medical officer, told The Republic’s Andy East last week that the hospital anticipates “a very limited supply in the first several months. We are prepared to use it when it does become available.”

All this is good news, but for many months now we have had an even more effective means of preventing serious illness and death from COVID: vaccinations and booster shots. The evidence and the medical advice has been clear and consistent: Getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to prevent serious illness and death. Still, too many people are not acting in their own best interests or in the community’s best interests. Too many continue to refuse to get vaccinated and/or boosted.

This is placing relentless pressure on local health care workers who are dealing with what is largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Earlier this month, CRH was forced to prioritize severely ill patients and delay some surgeries because COVID admissions had pushed the hospital headcount to the highest level in CRH’s 104-year history. Among COVID patients in the hospital, four out of five were unvaccinated.

Meantime, local and federal health officials fully expect a surge in the coming days and weeks due to the omicron variant. Now the dominant strain nationwide, omicron is much more contagious than previous strains. While the evidence to date suggests that omicron results in fewer serious and lethal cases, it is infecting many, many more people.

As Crowder put it, “If you are not vaccinated, you are going to get exposed to omicron if you haven’t already. … Nearly everyone who lives in the world is either going to have antibodies from having had COVID or having been immunized. I think that’s playing out right now.”

Make no mistake, the new COVID pills hold great promise and could be a key part of a long-term strategy to conquer coronavirus. Meantime, doctors’ orders have not changed.

“We know that the vaccine will help protect against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Crowder said. “The best thing you can do to protect yourself from omicron is exactly what it was … which is get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands and socially distance.”

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