Why Madison’s supply of COVID pills is going unused, and what you should be asking your doctor

MADISON, Wis.– They’ve been called a ‘game-changer’ in treating COVID-19, but local healthcare workers say Wisconsin’s supply of coronavirus pills is largely going unused.

A challenge to prescribe

“It’s not as easy to get these pills out to people as you might think,” UW Health Hospitalist Dr. Bart Caponi told News 3.

When state hospitals and pharmacies got their first shipments of pills in January, Caponi expected they’d go quickly.

“They’re for people who are at the highest risk of becoming very sick from COVID, but haven’t become very sick just yet. They can really help a lot of people,” he explained.

What Caponi didn’t expect was that getting the pills to people who could benefit from them would be so complicated.

The two types of pills, approved for use in people who are COVID positive, but not hospitalized, prevent the virus from reproducing. They must be given within the first five days of symptom onset to be effective.

“So if there’s any delay in testing or getting your test results, that’s running the clock,” Caponi said.

Adding to the challenge: one of the pills interferes with several medications, while the other potentially causes birth defects.

However, for people who need them, they can be life-saving. Clinical trials have shown Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill prevents hospitalization and death in nearly 90% of high-risk patients.

The state’s current supply

“Equity becomes a key area to look at if a medication is scare,” said SSM Health’s Mo Kharbat, in a Zoom call with News 3. “We’re not seeing a level of scarcity that would require use to prioritize patients as to who should get this and who should not.”

Kharbat explains the biggest problem locally is that a lot of people don’t know these medications exist. As of February, SSM Health had only distributed 20% of its COVID pill supply.

UW Health, on the other hand, had used 94% of its supply, but still had pills in stock.

Dozens of other Madison-area pharmacies have hundreds, if not thousands, of doses available. DHS has a map on its website of location that have either or both of the antiviral pills in stock. Click here to find options where you live.

Who qualifies & what to ask your doctor

So, how do you know if you’re a candidate for these pills?

“If you’re someone who’s at-risk for getting very sick from COVID, it doesn’t hurt to ask,” said Caponi.

People with underlying health conditions, like asthma, are some of the best candidates, but Caponi suggests anyone who feels sick should call their primary-care doctor while awaiting COVID test results.

“It’s also important to remember these pills are not a substitute for vaccination, of course,” said Caponi. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.”

Click here to find a COVID-19 vaccine location near you.