Ducey to allot $60M for hospitals that use antibody drugs

September 1, 2021 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — Gov. Doug Ducey is appropriating $60 million in federal virus relief funds to help understaffed Arizona hospitals, but only if they offer monoclonal antibody treatments as well as vaccines, his office announced Wednesday.

“Hospital staffing has been taxed tremendously as result of dealing with COVID-19,” said C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesman. “We believe the plan we’re announcing today will help address this.”

The funding will go toward contracts for 750 nurses who will work eight weeks. The Arizona Department of Health Services will handle the contracts and, based on staffing data submitted by hospitals, assign the nurses.

Hospital eligibility will depend on them using “proven techniques” like COVID-19 antibody drugs and offering “vaccination at discharge,” said Christina Corieri, a senior policy adviser to Ducey.

Ducey is one of several Republican governors who have been pushing for antibody treatments in the face of those who say mask and vaccine mandates are better solutions. Antibody treatments remain one of a handful of therapies that can blunt the worst effects of COVID-19, and they are the only option available to people with mild-to-moderate cases who aren’t yet in the hospital.

The drugs are only recommended for people at the highest risk of progressing to severe COVID-19, but the conditions to qualify have broadened. The list of conditions now includes: older age, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy and more than a half-dozen other issues.

They have risen in demand in states seeing a spike in infections, including Florida, Louisiana and Texas, where hospitalizations among the unvaccinated are overwhelming the health care system.

Ducey is likely to draw criticism for offering federal funding that is tethered to conditions. He faced backlash last month for pressuring public school districts defying a state ban on mask mandates by making them ineligible for a $163 million school grant program. The program was also created using federal virus relief funds.

Corieri said there is nothing inappropriate about the way the funding is being doled out.

“There’s always been conditions on the staffing support,” she said.

The funding announcement comes as Arizona continues to deal with a surge. The state on Wednesday reported 4,740 newly confirmed COVID-19 infections and 67 deaths. Though the numbers were higher than normal because of a data-processing issue on Tuesday.

This brings Arizona’s totals since the pandemic began to 1,016,633 cases and 18,853 deaths.

Hospitalizations continue to rise with 2,057 people hospitalized as of Tuesday.

Public health experts say the current surge in Arizona is due to the more-contagious delta variant. Multiple hospital systems in the state say most of their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Among them is Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital chain, which is dealing with a nursing shortage. Hundreds of travel nurses and respiratory therapists are being trained each week, said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer.

More than 90% of Banner’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Two-thirds of them are between ages 20 and 65.

The number of even younger patients has risen sharply. Banner treated 412 pediatric patients who either had or were suspected of having COVID-19 in August. In July, Banner treated 174. Most of them didn’t require ICU care, Bessel added.

Currently, 56% of Arizona’s eligible population — or over 4 million people — have received at least one vaccine dose. More than 3.5 million people are fully vaccinated.