COVID-19 pills may bring 2-year pandemic to an end, but they're hard to find

As Pfizer and Merck’s new antiviral COVID-19 pills begin to arrive in pharmacies across the country, disease researchers say this could be the end of a nearly two-year pandemic. 

"I think we’re starting to get to the end of this thing. We’ve got a lot of arrows in our quiver that we can use to fight this thing now," says DR. Thomas Unnasch, a professor in Global Infectious Disease Research at USF Health. "Depending on the study you’re seeing an 80 to 90 percent reduction in the chances that you’ll be hospitalized when you go on the pills."

Dr. Unnasch says the antiviral pills will work against COVID-19 much like Tamiflu works to prevent serious flu infections.  

"I think it’ll basically bring it down to a point where it’s pretty much similar to what we see with the seasonal flu," says Unnasch. 

Like Tamiflu, Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s Molnupiravir oral antiviral pills are available by prescription only. For those who’ve tested positive at home, your doctor will likely need to verify a positive test in person.

As with other COVID-19 treatments, the pills should be taken early on to be effective. According to the FDA, a patient should start the pills as early as possible after diagnosis and within five days of the onset of symptoms. 

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"If you wait until you're so sick that you end up in a hospital it's not going to help you at all," cautions Unnasch. 

While the antiviral pills will offer effective treatment patients can take from the comfort of home, Dr. Unnasch warns they aren’t a replacement for the vaccine. 

"With the Paxlovid, you’re getting an 80 percent reduction in your chance of needing hospitalization, but that still means you have a one in five chance of ending up in the hospital if you take the drug and get it on time," explains Unnasch. "The vaccinations add another 95 percent protection on top of that so I would really encourage people to do defense in depth. We have this available now, but if you're vaccinated you're going to really reduce your chances of getting severely ill."

Finding the pills is currently tricky. They’ve only been released to select pharmacy locations across the country. Florida’s COVID-19 Treatment Finder site shows just how limited supplies are.

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Only three pharmacies in the Bay Area currently carry the pills: a Walmart in Tampa, a Publix in Sebring and a Walgreens in New Port Richey. As of writing, all three still had inventory available to prescribers. 

The state’s site also errantly lists several Publix locations that do not actually have the pills in stock. Pharmacy employees explained that their locations had been added to the state’s site by mistake and thus far requests to remove them have not been answered. 

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When Julia Riccardi developed a low-grade fever last August, she thought she was getting a cold, but a short time later the 19-year-old ended up on a ventilator battling COVID-19.

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According to a Publix spokesperson, only five stores in Florida (locations in Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Port Charlotte, Sebring, and West Palm Beach) currently carry the pills.

Walmart has created a store locator site for patients to find Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacy locations that carry the pills.

Dr. Unnasch believes supplies will ramp up soon and within a month he says we could be out of this pandemic. 

"We are looking at a bright spot at the end of the tunnel in a couple of weeks but right now things are really great and I think people really need to do what they can to prevent themselves from being infected. That means social distancing and wearing masks at least for another few weeks until we are really out in the sunshine again," says Unnasch. 

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