Over the past two years, as COVID-19 has violently extinguished 840,000 American lives, I’ve read about the strain the pandemic has placed on our doctors and nurses. But I didn’t fully appreciate the frayed rope that is our healthcare system until last month, when both of my elderly parents contracted COVID-19.
The call I had dreaded for almost two years came on the morning of December 27, 2021 from my mother, and the symptoms were all too familiar: cough, difficulty breathing, chest pressure, body aches and fatigue.
After a 10 minute argument during which she tried to convince me it was just the worst cold she had ever had, I prevailed and she took a COVID-19 test. It was positive.
When my mother started teaching at a university in the 80s, she started using the university hospital for her medical needs. Since the hospital is highly ranked, I was confident that my mother’s COVID-19 infection would receive excellent medical treatment. Boy, I was wrong.
Difficulty getting treatment
The problems started when my mother contacted her doctor, only to find out she was on vacation. She’s entitled to it, and the university said a GP would call. Instead the call came from a nurse who basically asked my mom not to come to the hospital unless something catastrophic happened like her blood oxygen dropped below at a safe level.
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An 85-year-old woman, with other serious health issues, has a life-threatening viral infection that can attack the lungs – and complains of chest pressure – and no one has better press a stethoscope to her chest to to listen ?
When it became clear that we couldn’t rely on the hospital to do anything but arrange a “catch you before you hit the cement” visit to the ER, I got involved. I suggested a prescription for Paxlovid, the Pfizer pill that was recently approved by the FDA and, according to numerous reports, 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 called me back the next day to tell me that the medicine was in short supply and there was nothing the doctor could do to help us get it .
I also asked if the doctor could arrange for my mother to receive the monoclonal antibody treatment which is widely credited with saving the life of former President Donald Trump when he contracted COVID-19, and which 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 treatment, but the limited supply meant that a doctor’s prescription was not enough. A reference had to be made to a group of doctors who decide which patients will receive the life-saving drug. He made the referral and assured us that we would hear from the group handling the treatment, within 24 hours.
Then 24, 48, 72, 96 hours passed and not a word from the people who allow monoclonal antibody treatment. Each passing day was an emotional agony as the therapy lost its effectiveness as the time passed between the infection and the infusion. Even a call saying “we have 50 people in front of your mother so her treatment won’t last three days” would have been understandable.
In the middle of the week, my father was also sick with the same symptoms. It took her almost two hours of phone calls just to arrange a PCR test in the parking lot. My father was also subjected to the antibody treatment.
As the days passed, I emailed and called the nurse, who was juggling patients for my parents’ doctor on vacation. 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 that my mother’s doctor was going to call to see her. A week later, no call ever came.
What came up was that I was suggested to go to a Michigan.gov website that had over 100 listings of monoclonal antibody treatment centers statewide. And so began my labor through countless hours of elevator music, dropped voicemails, and phone transfers that ended in disconnection — all in an effort to secure potentially life-saving treatment for my parents.
Eventually, I found a center that offered us the treatment. Doesn’t matter it was nearly 70 miles away or it was New Years Eve, we went. And even though my dad’s PCR test result hadn’t come back yet, I told the hospital it was positive because I didn’t want to pass up the chance. While he was receiving the infusion, the positive test came. While I am incredibly grateful to the facility that treated him, they gave powerful COVID treatment to a patient with no positive COVID-19 test on record.
Rethinking our approach to the pandemic
I understand that the American healthcare system is besieged by the highly transmissible omicron variant that sickens even triple vaxxed people like my parents. But right now, American health care feels like the Wild West.
I firmly put the bulk of the blame on the anti-vaxxers. They are followed closely by people who wear their masks as a chin strap. But if I’m being honest, President Joe Biden’s administration bears some of the blame.
I criticized Trump for not effectively using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to force private companies to produce more personal protective equipment early in the pandemic. While Biden uses the DPA far more aggressively than Trump, access to lifesaving COVID treatments shouldn’t feel like an episode of “The Hunger Games.”
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And it’s not just the drugs that are lacking. A few weeks ago, I went to five pharmacies to take an at-home COVID test. The shelves looked like what you would find at Best Buy, 5 minutes before Black Friday closing. On the way back, I passed an Italian restaurant with a line of about 30 people. I love Italian food and thought of coming back for dinner to see why it was so popular. Turns out the 30 people were actually in line for a pop-up COVID testing site next door. As the White House purchased half a billion COVID tests to distribute for free this month, home testing should have been a priority earlier.
For now, my parents seem stable. But learn a lesson from my misery: before you get sick, create a network of family and friends who are willing to help you if you get COVID. Once sick, you will no longer have the strength.
And be warned: in this time of medical triage, people cannot rely on their doctors and hospitals to provide safe healthcare. If you don’t have a medical lawyer, you’re screwed.
USA TODAY Board of Contributors Michael J. Stern served as 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