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Seeking to spread access to antiviral medication more widely, the state health department has begun offering free telehealth service available to people who test positive for COVID-19.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) launched the program expecting COVID-19 cases to rise in the coming months, said Dr. Jon Meiman, chief medical officer for DHS, in a media briefing Wednesday.
The federal government has already been distributing two antiviral treatments for COVID-19, Paxlovid and Lagevrio, both authorized by the FDA earlier this year.
About 22 Wisconsin pharmacies and clinics already participate in a Test-to-Treat program that makes it possible for a patient to get a COVID-19 test and receive and fill a prescription on the same visit if the medication is appropriate.
“The idea behind telehealth, just like Test-to-Treat, is to expand access to these antivirals,” Meiman said. It also is aimed at speeding up treatment: To be effective, antiviral drugs need to be taken within one to five days after a person first has COVID-19 symptoms.
Over the course of the pandemic it’s become more apparent that residents in the state’s rural areas have more difficulty connecting with health care providers. “But there can also be similar challenges in urban areas,” Meiman said.
Telehealth aims to address those and other gaps in health care access, from the lack of insurance or a regular health care provider to the lack of transportation to a clinic, said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake in a statement.
“Providing telehealth access supports our commitment to health equity,” she said. “We believe this will be especially important in extending our ability to serve rural, elderly, and other underserved populations.”
Meiman said the state has ample supply of the antiviral drugs, and that there’s “no need to triage or ration” their availability.
Nevertheless, the medication is primarily recommended for people who are at greater risk for moderate or severe illness, he said. That can include people who are un- or undervaccinated, people who have compromised immune systems, or people who are more at risk for severe COVID-19 illness for other reasons.
DHS doesn’t consider telehealth a substitute for vaccination, however. Vaccination “is the best protection” against severe disease that could lead to hospitalization or death, Meiman said.
The state’s COVID-19 telehealth service is provided by an outside contractor. After a positive COVID-19 test a person can register by calling a toll-free telephone number using an online link, both posted on the DHS COVID-19 telehealth web page. The service will be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
The patient should receive a return phone call from a health provider within 30 minutes, Meiman said. After a five- to 25-minute consultation, if the provider concludes antiviral drugs are appropriate, the prescription can be transmitted electronically immediately to the patient.
Some 600 Wisconsin pharmacies and clinics can fill prescriptions for the medications, according to DHS. There is also a mail-order option for patients without access to a local pharmacy.
Both the telehealth visits and the antiviral medications are provided at no charge to patients, Meiman said. The telehealth program is funded under the federal 2021 American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief legislation.
The number of COVID-19 infections reported by public health agencies from testing clinics or health providers has been declining. But the growing number of positive home tests aren’t included in public health case counts.
“We’re entering a moment when we’re looking at multiple data sources” to measure the prevalence of the pandemic, Meiman said. Increased hospitalization rates and increased evidence of the virus in wastewater tests suggest that “we’re entering a period of increased transmission.”
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