The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved molnupiravir for emergency use. The pill can help keep COVID patients from dying or being hospitalized. Credit: Merck

New COVID cases may be low across the country and in Minnesota, but people are still catching the virus.

Those who test positive now have access to treatment right away. While the current dominant variant of COVID isn’t as virulent as previous strains, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends people who are at high risk of severe illness seek immediate treatment, even if their symptoms are mild. 

So, what COVID infection treatments are available, and how can people access them? 

Sahan Journal breaks down the options below. 

How do I know if I am at high risk for a severe COVID infection? 

The CDC lists people with the following medical conditions as having a high risk for serious infection: cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, chronic lung disease, cystic fibrosis, dementia, diabetes, disabilities, heart conditions, HIV, immunocompromised, mental health conditions, overweight, pregnancy, sickle-cell disease, stroke, substance-use disorder, and tuberculosis.

Current and former smokers and people who have received organ transplants are also at high risk. 

Finally, people ages 65 and older are also at a higher risk of more serious symptoms. 

Many of these conditions impact people of color disproportionately. For example, African Americans are 50 percent more likely than whites to experience a stroke and three times as likely to have kidney failure.

What medicine is currently available for treatment of a COVID infection? 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved two pills taken orally for emergency use: Paxlovid and molnupiravir. 

Paxlovid is the brand name for a drug that’s a combination of nirmatrelvir and ritonavir. It is for people ages 12 and up and should only be taken within the first five days of the onset of symptoms. If used properly, the drug is estimated to be 88 percent effective in keeping COVID patients from dying or being hospitalized. The drug blocks the COVID virus from replicating itself in the body. 

Molnupiravir (generic) works similarly by blocking the virus from replicating itself, and is 30 percent effective. Like Paxlovid, molnupiravir should be taken within the first five days of symptoms appearing. Only people ages 18 or older can take molnupiravir. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid the medicine.

In all cases, people who want to take either medication should first consult their doctor or medical provider to make sure it’s safe for them. 

How often should I take each medicine? 

For Paxlovid, the recommended dosage is two 150 milligram nirmatrelvir capsules and one 100 milligram ritonavir capsule taken together, twice a day, for a total of five days. 

For molnupiravir, the recommended dosage is four 200 milligram capsules every 12 hours for five days. The total dosage is 40 pills over five days. 

How can I obtain the medication? 

The federal government recently announced a “Test to Treat” program that allows people to test for COVID, get rapid results, and, should they test positive, obtain the medications. The program is run by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency’s website allows users to to search for locations near their homes where they can get tested and obtain medication at the same place. Users can simply type in their ZIP code or home address to find these locations. The website is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Often, these locations are local drug stores and pharmacies. 

Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Health lists online all of the state’s pharmacies, health providers, and community health clinics that currently offer oral COVID medication. 

Otherwise, any of the major health-care providers should have options available for the medication. Try calling your health-care provider. 

How much does it cost? 

The pills are free, however, COVID patients must meet a certain eligibility criteria to receive them. 

What criteria must be met to access these COVID treatments? 

Patients must be deemed high risk under the definitions listed above. For example, someone who is 25, tests positive, and has mild symptoms, but doesn’t have any of the medical conditions listed, will not be eligible for the medicine. The same goes for anyone who tests positive but doesn’t have symptoms. 

Do I have to test positive at a “test and treat” site in order to access the medicine?

No. If you test positive with a home test and meet the eligibility, you can still access the medicine. But a medical professional at a “test and treat” site needs to prescribe the medicine to you.

Those who test positive using an at-home COVID test must schedule an online or in-person appointment with a provider at a “test to treat” site or a health provider that has oral COVID treatment medication. Again, you can access a list of all locations providing this medicine by clicking here. Keep your positive test results handy. 

Is it available over the counter? 

No, both pills can only be prescribed by a medical professional.

Is the medicine a replacement for vaccination?No. Health care professionals still recommend getting vaccinated and boosted as the best way to prevent serious illness. If infection rates are high in your area as defined by the CDC, public health experts recommend that you wear a mask indoors in public settings and practice social distancing.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...