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Michigan should prioritize early COVID treatments

When lawmakers return after the first of the year, they should consider this their No. 1 priority: allocating federal virus aid to combat the impact of COVID in Michigan.

The House last week signed off on around $1 billion in funding that would invest in new treatments and increase locations for receiving them, in addition to other measures aimed at easing the burden on the state’s hospitals and health care staff. But the Senate still must give its approval.

This is an excellent use of some of the billions in relief dollars the state has yet to spend.

Michigan continues to lead the country in new COVID cases and hospitalizations, and deaths are also on the rise. Hospitals are at or near capacity across the state. The health department on Monday reported 4,518 adults were hospitalized with confirmed virus infections — the highest to date. These numbers have trended upward since July and have stayed above 4,000 for more than a week.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state health department have rightly avoided new statewide mandates or lockdowns to address this latest surge, as other states are starting to do. Health officials have instead pushed vaccines and encouraged masking.

But it’s becoming clear that vaccines alone are not enough to combat the virus. Many Michiganians are simply not going to get the shot, and vaccines may not be as successful in blocking new variants like omicron.

Other treatments must be considered, too, to prevent serious illness and hospitalization, and give our state’s beleaguered health care workers a break.

The House plan would set aside $134 million to purchase monoclonal antibodies and other treatments for COVID, and include eight new delivery sites for the antibodies that are currently only available at hospitals. Another $300 million would go toward health care employee recruitment and retention. And $90 million would support vaccinations.

Similarly, the House and Senate supported legislation that eases licensing regulations on out-of-state health care workers.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, is a registered nurse and vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, and she thinks state residents should be more aware of early treatments and have greater access to them. She’s heard of individuals having to drive hours to access the antibodies.

“Nobody talks about these treatments,” Whiteford says.

Separately, last week she introduced another bill that would amend the state’s “right to try” law, which allows some patients greater access to new treatments and medications. She thinks COVID patients would benefit from greater options.

New treatments are coming online all the time, and the state must be nimble in ensuring residents have access to them.

For instance, Pfizer recently offered good news on the effectiveness of its antiviral pill Paxlovid, which proved in trial data to reduce hospitalization in high-risk groups by nearly 90%.

The Food and Drug Administration must still approve the treatment, but once it does, Michigan should be ready.

It’s discouraging that nearly two years after the pandemic emerged, it’s still wreaking havoc on our lives. Investing in early treatments and continuing to encourage vaccination seem the best ways to protect Michigan citizens.

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