Nurse Jeneanne Hawkins helps COVID-19 patient Eugene Schmick finish up a monoclonal antibody treatment at Salem Health's COVID infusion clinic on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Eugene Schmick started coughing in early October, his relatives got him tested for Covid right away.

Though the 100-year-old Salem resident has been vaccinated against the disease for months, David Wickham, his grandson and caregiver, said the family wanted to play it safe.

Because of his age, Schmick was at higher risk of serious illness if he developed a breakthrough case of Covid.

After Schmick tested positive, Wickham said the family learned he had an option for treatment that could help keep him out of the hospital: monoclonal antibody therapy.

The treatment, which can be administered by infusion or injection, has shown promise in keeping patients likely to develop severe cases of Covid out of the hospital. That includes people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions like diabetes, autoimmune disorders or hypertension.

It's available under an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Providers said that’s been especially important in recent months as a surge in new Covid infections meant more people vulnerable to severe disease were getting sick. That surge also filled local hospitals to near capacity, with severely ill Covid patients occupying the vast majority of intensive care unit beds at Salem Hospital for much of August and September.

The treatment uses antibodies manufactured in a lab which mimic the antibodies people’s bodies naturally produce in response to infection, helping people fight the disease more effectively.

The antibodies bind to virus particles in a person’s body, preventing those viruses from replicating and halting the disease’s progression, said Jeneanne Hawkins, assistant nurse manager at Salem Health’s infusion clinic.

“It doesn’t fix what’s already wrong with you,” Hawkins said. “It prevents worsening of the disease which is the whole intention here.”

Salem Health has offered monoclonal antibody treatment to Covid patients since December 2020, but providers said they’ve seen a large uptick in demand since the Delta surge began in late summer.

About 400 people have received the treatment through mid-September at Salem Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Lisa Wood said. Hospital providers said those treatments have reduced the risk of hospitalization for patients by about 70%.

The health care provider retooled an existing clinic on 12th Street Southeast to offer antibody treatment by infusion.

The separate clinic meant Covid-positive patients aren’t mixing with patients receiving other infusion treatments like chemotherapy, who are often particularly vulnerable to Covid infection.

Nurse Jeneanne Hawkins helps COVID-19 patient Eugene Schmick finish up a monoclonal antibody treatment by pushing saline into the line to move any remaining antibodies through at Salem Health's COVID infusion clinic on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Hawkins said they’re now treating 60 to 70 patients per week who are referred by their doctors or other care providers.

The clinic’s patients are a mix of people not vaccinated against Covid and those like Schmick who are vaccinated but still at high risk because of their age or other health conditions, Hawkins said.

“We’ve had a lot more interest lately in this clinic,” she said. Clinic providers are paid for their time, but all voluntarily chose to work at a Covid infusion clinic, Hawkins said.

Enrique Barrera, a family nurse practitioner who works at Salem Health clinics in Salem and Woodburn, said his patients often haven’t heard of monoclonal antibody therapy when he suggests it to them.

“It’s not something that’s very mainstream or that’s talked about regularly,” he said.

The Woodburn clinic is now offering monoclonal antibody therapy via injections, Barrera said, and he can also refer patients to Cascade Infectious Disease and Infusion, an independent south Salem clinic.

Barrera said he’s now able to get patients in within a day or two for the therapy. That’s important, he said, because the treatment is only authorized for use when people have had Covid symptoms for 10 days or fewer. The goal is to catch the disease before cases turn severe.

“The lion’s share of the population getting it right now has been the unvaccinated,” Barrera said about the patient’s he’s referred for the treatment. “A couple of them had previously had Covid and got it again.”

Barrera said he often doesn’t hear from patients after they receive the therapy, which is generally good news because it means they don’t need follow-up care. He’s referred about 80 patients since December and said he doesn’t know of any who ended up hospitalized because of Covid after getting the treatment.

Wickham said he and his mother discussed the treatment for his grandpa after it was recommended.

“I told her to check it out, looked interesting, grandpa might be a candidate for it,” Wickham said.

He sat in a chair in an infusion room on Oct. 8 as Hawkins wrapped up the treatment. The antibodies are infused via IV, a process that takes about half an hour. Patients are then observed for an hour to monitor for any side effects.

Schmick rested as Hawkins took his temperature - a healthy 98.5 degrees.

“Grandpa’s pretty resilient. He wasn’t really having a bad time breathing or anything, so I was pretty positive he’ll pull through,” Wickham said.

Nurse Jeneanne Hawkins takes the temperature of COVID-19 patient Eugene Schmick as he finishes up a monoclonal antibody treatment at Salem Health's COVID infusion clinic on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!