JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As the region continues to see record COVID-19 hospitalizations, many are now seeking monoclonal antibody treatments.

“There has been a significant increase in the numbers of patients and a significant increase in the number of hospitalizations and the recognition of this therapy is being so effective if given in the appropriate time period after diagnosis, it can prevent hospitalization,” said Chief Nursing Executive Lisa Smithgall. “It’s critically needed at this time based on our very high number of hospitalizations.”

Since opening earlier this week, about 20 patients have been treated at the new treatment facility, dedicated solely to monoclonal antibody infusions.

“If you’re getting the antibodies infused into your bloodstream directly, you should have a pretty good response to that within 24 hours or so,” said Mark Wilkinson, Ballad Health’s chief medical information officer and vice president of hospital-based programs. “It depends [on] how sick you were when you got the infusion.”

The entire process takes about an hour and a half.

“We administer the registration paperwork and we put them in one of our infusion chairs and we start an IV and the administration of the infusion,” said Smithgall. “It runs for 20 minutes and then we monitor the patient with vital signs and just their general well-being for an hour after the infusion.”

There are 11 chairs in the facility with plans to expand to treat more patients.

“Unlike a patient room where a patient with Covid was in and you can shut the door, everyone,” said Smithgall. “All of the patients in this area will have COVID, so we need to be appropriately attired in the highest level of PPE, which is an N95 mask.”

Ballad Health has been treating patients with COVID-19 with monoclonal antibodies since it was first authorized by the FDA under emergency use authorization back in December of last year.

“The scientists have chosen folks who have had a great immune response to COVID and picked those antibodies and replicated those in a lab, formed the medication out of it,” said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson explains the difference between monoclonal antibody treatment and convalescent plasma.

Patients must be COVID positive and be within the first few days of showing symptoms. The treatment must be ordered by a physician. Ballad Health is continuing to administer infusions at their hospitals as well.

“The physician has to order this therapy because it is an emergency use authorization medication,” Smithgall said. “The physician orders the infusion and then our nurse connect will contact our patient to schedule them.”

Those who are 12 and up, weigh 88 pounds, and have the potential to develop a severe disease because of COVID are eligible. Pregnant women and people who have high-risk health situations or are immunocompromised can be treated with monoclonal antibodies. Those over the age of 65 are eligible based on age alone.

“Within five days, we typically have a better response from the monoclonal infusion, you have a more rapid ability to fight the infection off,” explained Wilkinson. “At 10 days or so, your body’s already produced some antibodies, you’ve already had that immune response occurring…it may not be the best response but monoclonal doesn’t add a whole lot of benefit to you beyond that 10-day window.”

Immune systems respond similarly to the treatment as they do the vaccine. The COVID vaccine was given the green light under the same emergency use authorization.

“Your body does mount an immune response to that vaccine. There are proteins in the vaccine that the body is keyed into and the white blood cells produce antibodies against those proteins in the vaccine,” said Wilkinson. “[The antibody treatment] is basically jumpstarting your immune system so that the antibodies, which you would produce naturally, are injected into your system and present immediately.”

Although the treatment is promising, Wilkinson says this is no reason to not get the shot.

“We still recommend vaccination because of the different variants of the COVID virus that are out there currently,” said Wilkinson. “Generally speaking, if you’ve contracted COVID, we want you to wait 60 days, 60-90 days is the general window. Afterward, you can go ahead and get a vaccine, even if you’ve had monoclonal antibody infusions.”