When it comes to new anti-viral pills that treat COVID-19 patients who’ve already been infected, there are two key things to keep in mind, said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health's chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

picture of headshot of Dr. David Priest
Dr. David Priest

One: Having new drugs that help reduce COVID hospitalizations and deaths is obviously wonderful news.

Two: In no way is it a substitute for getting vaccinated. Preventing illness in the first place is always better than getting sick and then getting treated, he said.

“We would hope that people would not forego vaccination for COVID because they think: ‘Oh, they’ll just give me the pill,’” Priest said. “We've seen with some variants that sometimes COVID disease progresses really rapidly. And you may not have time for that pill to work.”

Their supply is also “incredibly low," he added.

“We’re really excited about these oral medications, and they’ll be game changers once we have access to them, but there’s so little available right now. We need people to know that if they’re unvaccinated or at high-risk for complications from COVID, there will be limited therapies to help them if they get the virus,” Priest said.

The bottom line: Don't wait to get vaccinated or receive a booster. It's better to avoid getting COVID altogether than treating it once you have it.

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Paxlovid and molnupiravir

In late December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir for treatment of “mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease.

The approvals come as the fast-spreading omicron variant overtakes the United States, sparking fresh fears that hospitals again will be stretched to capacity or beyond.

Paxlovid is for adults and children 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds. The Merck drug is not authorized for use in patients younger than 18 because it can affect bone and cartilage growth.

Also, the FDA said that based on findings from animal reproduction studies, molnupiravir may cause fetal harm when administered to pregnant individuals, and it is not recommended for use during pregnancy.

“Females of childbearing potential are advised to use a reliable method of birth control correctly and consistently during treatment with molnupiravir and for four days after the final dose,” the agency advised. “Males of reproductive potential who are sexually active with females of childbearing potential are advised to use a reliable method of birth control correctly and consistently during treatment with molnupiravir and for at least three months after the final dose.”

The FDA also noted that neither drug is authorized for the pre-exposure or post-exposure prevention of COVID-19.

But if you get vaccinated upfront, and receive a booster when eligible, your chances of receiving a severe infection that requires hospitalization are greatly reduced, Priest said.

“Don't let a personal tragedy be the thing that prompts you to get vaccinated,” he said. “Don't let it get close to you before you make a good decision and protect yourself and those around you from COVID.”