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Antiviral Pills to Fight COVID-19 Sitting Unused in Pharmacies, But Prisoners Go Wanting

By Chuck Sharman

Roughly one-third of the U.S. supply of Paxlovid, an antiviral pill to fight COVID-19, were still sitting unused on April 26, 2022, according to the New York Times. But few if any of those 630,000 doses were destined for prisons, despite seeming “tailor-made” for use there, as Stat  reported: The drug is administered orally, not via injection, and can both “significantly reduce people’s ability to spread the virus” and their “chances of getting seriously ill or dying from Covid-19.”

Since remdesivir became the first antiviral approved to combat the disease in May 2020, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has been allocated precious little of the supply, just 1,500 doses by March 24, 2022. But prisoners held by agency have been issued only a fraction of that—363 prescriptions, including just three for Paxlovid out of a measly 160 courses of the drug supplied to BOP.

The records were obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Corene Kendrick, who serves as deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called the numbers “shocking” and “unacceptable,” though she said that it “seemed to confirm what we had been finding in our litigation and from talking with other advocates.”

“The response [from prison officials] seems to be ‘OK, go back to your cell, drink water, take aspirin, and rest’ and not to have the prison system availing itself of the therapeutics that are available,” Kendrick said.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for distributing the drugs, pointed the finger squarely at BOP, saying that “HHS has not received a request from the BOP for additional product at this time.” 

During the last two weeks of January 2022, there were 11 BOP prisons reporting jumps in new cases of COVID-19 that exceeded 100%, according to University of Iowa researchers. Yet the number of Paxlovid doses requested by BOP was zero.

As for the lagging uptake among the unincarcerated, state health officials blame not only vaccine hesitancy but also confusion over who qualifies for the drugs and whether a particular health insurer will cover the cost.

A course of Paxlovid consists of twice-daily doses of three pills each, repeated for five days, preferably near the onset of infection. In his State of the Union address on February 28, 2022, Pres. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D) announced his administration’s “test to treat” program would include hundreds of places around the U.S. offering COVID-19 screening and, for those testing positive, a supply of Paxlovid provided then and there. 

However, six weeks later, on April 14, 2022, there remained “large swaths of the country” with “no test-to-treat pharmacies or health centers,” according to Kaiser Health News, which also said the program’s largest participant, CVS Pharmacy, was experiencing “significant technical issues that make booking an appointment difficult.” 

Sources: Kaiser Health News, New York Times, Stat

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