Over the course of the past two years, as COVID-19 violently extinguished nearly 850,000 American lives, I’ve read about the strain the pandemic has placed on our doctors and nurses. But I did not fully appreciate the fraying rope that is our health care system until last month, when both my elderly parents got COVID-19.
The call I had been dreading for nearly two years came the morning of Dec. 27 from my mother, and the symptoms were all too familiar: coughing, trouble breathing, chest pressure, body aches and fatigue.
After a 10-minute squabble in which she tried to convince me it was just the worst cold she’d ever had, I prevailed and she took a COVID-19 test. It was positive.
When my mom began teaching at a university in the '80s, she started using the university’s hospital for her medical needs. Given that the hospital is highly ranked, I was confident my mother’s COVID-19 infection would be met with great medical treatment. Boy, was I wrong.
Trouble getting treatment
The problems began when my mother contacted her doctor, only to find she was on vacation. She’s entitled, and the university said a covering doctor would call. Instead, the call came from a nurse who essentially instructed my mother not to come to the hospital unless something catastrophic happened, like her blood oxygen fell below a safe level.
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An 85-year-old woman, with other serious medical conditions, has a potentially deadly viral infection that can attack the lungs – and is complaining about chest pressure – and no one has any interest in pressing a stethoscope to her chest to take a listen?
When it became clear we could not rely on the hospital to do anything more than arrange a “catch you before you hit cement” visit to the emergency room, I got involved. I suggested a prescription for Paxlovid, the Pfizer pill that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration and, according to lots of news reporting, appears to be very effective in treating COVID-19.
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The nurse I spoke to seemed to know nothing about it, but he did get back to me the next day to say the drug is in limited supply and the doctor could do nothing to help us get it.
I also asked whether the doctor could arrange for my mom to get the monoclonal antibody treatment that is largely credited with saving former President Donald Trump’s life when he contracted COVID-19, and has been available to the public for a year. Here’s where things went off the rails.
Monoclonal antibody treatment
The nurse said that my mother’s age and medical condition would qualify her for the treatment, but that the limited supply meant a doctor’s prescription was not enough. A referral had to be made to a group of doctors who decide which patients will be given the lifesaving drug. He made the referral and assured us that we’d hear from the group that handled the treatment, within 24 hours.
Then 24, 48, 72, 96 hours passed and not a word from the people who authorize the monoclonal antibody treatment. Each passing day was emotional agony because the therapy loses effectiveness as time passes between infection and infusion. Even a call saying “we have 50 people ahead of your mom so her treatment won’t be for three days” would have been understandable.
By mid-week, my father was also sick with the same symptoms. It took him almost two hours of telephone calls just to arrange a parking lot PCR test. My dad was also submitted for the antibody treatment.
As the days ticked by, I emailed and called the nurse, who was juggling patients for my parents’ vacationing doctor. He was empathetic but said he could not provide any contact information for the monoclonal antibody group. He told me to be patient and rest assured, the call would come. He also told me my mother’s doctor would call to check on her. A week later, neither call ever came.
What did come was a suggestion that I go on a Michigan.gov website that had more than 100 listings for monoclonal antibody treatment centers across the state. So began my slog through countless hours of elevator music, deposited voicemails and telephone transfers that ended in disconnection – all in an effort to secure a potentially lifesaving treatment for my parents.
Eventually, I found a center. Never mind that it was almost 70 miles away or that it was New Year’s Eve, we went. And though my father’s PCR test result had not come back, I told the hospital it was positive because I was not willing to let the opportunity slip by. While he was getting the infusion, the positive test came in. Though I am incredibly grateful to the facility that treated him, they gave a powerful COVID treatment to a patient with no positive COVID-19 test on record.
Rethink our approach to the pandemic
I get that the U.S. health care system is under siege from the highly transmissible omicron variant that is sickening even triple-vaxxed people like my parents. But at the moment, American health care feels like the Wild West.
I put the bulk of the blame firmly on the anti-vaxxers. They are closely followed by the people who wear their masks as chin straps. But if I’m being honest, President Joe Biden’s administration carries some of the blame.
I criticized Trump for failing to effectively use the Defense Production Act to force private companies to produce more personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic. While Biden is using the DPA far more aggressively than Trump, access to lifesaving COVID treatments should not feel like an episode of "The Hunger Games."
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And it’s not just medication that is in short supply. A few weeks ago, I went to five drug stores to get a home COVID-19 test. The shelves looked like what you’d find at Best Buy five minutes before closing on Black Friday. On the way home, I walked past an Italian restaurant with a line of about 30 people. I love Italian food and made a mental note to come back for dinner to see why it was so popular. Turns out they were actually in line for a pop-up COVID testing site next door. While the White House has purchased half-a-billion COVID tests to be distributed for free, home testing should have been an earlier priority.
At the moment, my parents appear stable. But take a lesson from my misery: Before you get sick, create a network of family and friends who agree to help if you get COVID-19. Once you’re sick, you will not have the strength.
And be warned: In this time of medical triage, people cannot rely on their doctors and hospitals to provide safe health care. If you do not have a medical advocate, you’re screwed.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From COVID pills to monoclonal antibodies, hospitals triage treatment