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First patient who received COVID-fighting infusion: ‘Hardest part was the needle’

First patient who received COVID-fighting infusion: ‘Hardest part was the needle’

When she signed up to receive a new monoclonal antibody to help ward off her symptoms of COVID-19, Bethany Wilson said her biggest concern was the needle.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

Long before COVID became a household word Bethany Wilson was in the habit of checking her temperature daily. At 58, she struggles with high blood pressure and cholesterol, and is diagnosed with Type II diabetes. She also suffered a stroke several years ago.

Taking her temperature helps her remain aware of pending infection. In mid-November that awareness helped her get the help she needed. Her temperature was up, she felt tired, her body ached, her throat was dry, and she had a non-productive cough – all symptoms of COVID.

On November 19th, her diagnosis was confirmed and on November 20th, Wilson became the first patient to receive the drug Bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody infusion. The drug, manufactured by Eli Lilly and Company, is designed to treat high-risk non-hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients.

Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic antibodies that block the virus and prevent it from infecting cells. The intent is to administer the antibodies to people who have mild to moderate symptoms, but aren't sick enough to be hospitalized. The drug has not proved to help hospitalized patients. Eli Lilly researchers believe the drug can increase the time it takes for the body to rid itself of virus.

Wilson was considered high risk because of her pre-existing conditions.

The drug is administered at the new 16-bed IU Health Infusion Center – dedicated specifically to the COVID-19 treatment. The treatment takes about an hour for the infusion and a little under that time for patient observation once the treatment is completed.

“I have to admit, I’m a big chicken of needles,” said Wilson. “Once the infusion started, I sat and read and went through all the information that was provided to me. The doctors did a great job of explaining it to me,” she added. “The only side effect was what I already felt from COVID – a little achy,” said Wilson, who continued to quarantine alone in her home and is now is enjoying improved health.

Wilson’s fear of the needle is typical of many patients who have received the treatment, said Dr. Michele Saysana, IU Health chief quality and safety officer. “I think a big part is that it’s an infusion, not a pill and many people have a real fear of needles,” said Dr. Saysana. “There’s a small risk to an allergic reaction and just with any treatment there’s some fear of how effective it is,” she added. To date, IU Health has administered the treatment to more than 30 patients from throughout the hospital region. The Indianapolis location is the only IU Health Infusion Center offering the treatment.

“The reason why we only have it in Indianapolis is we wanted to set up an infusion center that was separate from other infusion centers that serve patients with compromised immune systems,” said Dr. Saysana. “It’s important to reduce the risk of exposing non-COVID patients to COVID-positive patients. We are fortunate to have a space near the hospital that we could modify in a short amount of time.”

In all, IU Health has access to 500 doses of the monoclonal antibody infusions. The drug is specifically aimed at COVID-positive patients who are over the age of 65 or those with underlying health conditions. The drug is not effective if a patient has suffered 10 days of symptoms.

“It’s important for people to know that there is a plan in place,” said Dr. Saysana. “They can come through the emergency department, urgent care or physician referral. We are actually reviewing data every day to identify COVID-positive people and then reaching out to them to see if they meet the criteria and to let them know that this drug is available to them.”

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