By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer
It might feel like the pandemic has become a thing of the past as life returns to normal in Sacramento. But COVID-19 continues to make many sick and local doctors hope to spread awareness about new treatments.
While COVID-19 cases in Sacramento County remain much lower than their peak last January, hundreds of people still are testing positive each month, according to the state’s COVID dashboard.
The pandemic has had an unequal impact on the Black community, with Black Sacramentans being more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and more likely to die from it. Black Sacramentans were also less likely to be vaccinated, and now national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they are again less likely to be prescribed antivirals for COVID. In the study, conducted from April to July 2022, Black patients who tested positive for COVID-19 were about 36% less likely to be prescribed Paxlovid as White patients.
To help counteract the disparity, local doctors are trying to spread awareness about the treatments, the most common of which is an antiviral called Paxlovid, which could be vital for the health of Black Sacramentans.
What Paxlovid Is And How To Get It
Among doctors trying to spread the word about COVID-19 antiviral treatment is Dr. Hakeem Adeniyi, who works as a physician at the Sacramento Native American Health Center. He has worked throughout his career to try and help under-resourced groups access care, and said Paxlovid is an incredibly important medication to know about.
Paxlovid is a series of pills that work to attack the virus that causes COVID-19.
“COVID antivirals, similar to taking antibiotics for bacterial infections, in essence try to kill the virus off,” Adeniyi said. “With COVID antiviral medications, it targets a certain area within the virus itself. That helps reduce the multiplication of the virus and kills it off inside the body.”
He said Paxlovid has been shown to significantly decrease the risk of severe illness and death. However, patients must start taking the medication soon after experiencing symptoms.
“Within five days, you really want to get in to get treatment,” he said. “Hopefully, people are able to get in with their [primary care physician] or the health care office, but there are opportunities for people who don’t to also reach out to COVID hotlines.”
The medication is only available via prescription, which presents a barrier. However, if a patient has tested positive and can’t see a doctor, they should be able to get a prescription from an urgent care clinic or via the state’s COVID hotline at 833‑422‑4255.
Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye also is working in Sacramento to get Paxlovid to more patients.
She emphasized how effective these antivirals are.
“People need to make use of them because they are effective. They will reduce the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Kasirye said.
But she also said since Paxlovid is a fairly new medication, patients should ask about it even if their doctor doesn’t bring it up. The health system is sometimes slow to adapt, and previous shortages of the medication meant it used to be more difficult to qualify for.
Kasirye said that’s no longer true and that nearly everyone who tests positive should be able to get Paxlovid for free.
“It should be offered to almost everybody who gets a positive test,” she said.
Why Haven’t You Heard Of Paxlovid?
Adeniyi and Kasirye both said many don’t know about treatments such as Paxlovid for several reasons. The problem is partly that people aren’t paying attention to new developments in the pandemic anymore.
“People want to get back to life as it was before,” Adeniyi said. “But as health care professionals, I don’t think we’re talking about it nearly as much either.”
Adeniyi said now that hospitals aren’t as strained trying to provide for so many sick patients, the urgency to get out information has decreased. He added that there was a shortage of Paxlovid when it first became available and not all physicians know the shortage no longer exists.
“Availability of the medications wasn’t as great as we would have liked initially,” he said. “Even when we were prescribing it, there were times in which we would send it to the pharmacy and pharmacies didn’t have it in stock.”
Such factors have combined to make it difficult to get doctors and patients to rely on the medicine, even now when it should be much more readily available.
Kasirye said that doctors don’t always understand the eligibility requirement to be prescribed Paxlovid because it was different when there was a shortage, so they might not always let patients know it’s an option.
Of course, data also now reflects that doctors are less likely to prescribe the medication to Black patients anyway. Kasirye and Adeniyi both said this is a complex problem resulting from multiple biases in the health care system, from access to racism.
“We want to ensure that all individuals that live in the United States, that live in California, are able to receive the same level of care. There is no reason that certain demographics are receiving these services, while others are not, especially if it’s something that’s readily available to our communities,” Adeniyi said.
Especially because, as Kasirye points out, Black communities experience a particularly acute need for better treatment.
“When you look at the data, for Black communities, communities of color or disadvantaged communities, we’ve also seen disparities in the risk of exposure to COVID,” she said. “Chronic diseases that increase the risk of severe disease are much higher in these communities.”
She also said Black patients and others from underserved groups are more likely to live in larger households, so their risk in exposing older family members is higher.
While in a perfect world Black patients would be prescribed Paxlovid and other antivirals at the same rate as other groups, Adeniyi said it’s also important to make sure Black patients know about the medication and can then advocate for themselves.
“It’s really important to, if you have the voice, to be able to use your voice to advocate for yourself and to advocate for others,” he said.
More information about the treatments for COVID-19 in California can be found online at covid19.ca.gov/treatment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento Observer.