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PROVIDENCE — The first federally funded test-to-treat site in the United States opened on Thursday following its announcement by Dr. Ashish Jha, former dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and now the White House COVID-19 response coordinator.
According to Jha, the site, at Clínica Esparanza/Hope Clinic, 85 Eagle St. in Olneyville, is the first of many across America and will be an important advance in the fight against coronavirus disease.
At a test-to-treat site, people can get a COVID test and if it is positive see a medical professional about a prescription for Paxlovid, the oral Pfizer drug for treating the coronavirus.
Some local pharmacies and community health centers already offer test-to-treat services, but Jha said those need to be supplemented.
“About a week or 10 days ago, we realized that while we were making lots of progress, there were still people who were having a hard time getting access,” Jha said. “Maybe they don't have a primary-care doctor or maybe going through a CVS store was complicated. Maybe they were just struggling for one reason or another. And we decided to create a federal test-to-treat program.”
The test-to-treat sites will be open to anyone, free of charge, regardless of whether they have health insurance.
Jha and his team reached out to governors of several states, including Gov. Dan McKee, who “raised his hand immediately and said, ‘I want to do this in Rhode Island,’” Jha said.
Minnesota, New York and Illinois are among the other states where federal sites will soon open, Jha said, and Massachusetts is among the states considering joining the federal program.
The CDC recommends Paxlovid for early-stage treatment of mild to moderate cases among people who are at a high risk of progression to severe disease.
Since the drug has been approved for use, there has been some confusion about who qualifies as high-risk, how people can get treatment and how aggressive doctors should be prescribing it.
Jha on Thursday said the list of factors that qualify someone as high-risk is "very broad" and that a majority of adults qualify.
"I have been encouraging patients, if you test positive and are not sure if you are eligible, you should seek out care and a provider," he said. "And what I have been encouraging providers is, we should be pretty permissive about this."
The CDC this week continued recommending it while informing providers and the public that people receiving the drug may experience recurrence of symptoms, though there have been no reports of severe disease.
Jha said clinical trials for Paxlovid showed about 2% of people who took it experienced a resurgence of symptoms, similar to those who received a placebo, so "we don't necessarily think of Paxlovid causing it."
"I think this remains an infrequent event, even though if you are on social media and Twitter it feels like it is happening to everybody," he said. "It actually turned out health systems tracking it on large populations find it is pretty infrequent."
In addition to testing and treatment, the Clinica Esperanza site will offer COVID vaccinations.
Jha said the push for test-to-treat sites is the latest effort to minimize the impact of rising infection rates in many parts of the United States.
“One of the major goals in this pandemic is we've really got to break the link between infections and serious illness and get to a point where infections can rise and fall, but it will not fill up the hospitals and it will not kill people,” Jha said. “That's been a major goal, not the only but certainly one of the most important.”
With reports from Staff Writer Patrick Anderson.
COVID by the numbers
Cases in R.I.: 390,639 (738 reported Thursday)
Negative tests in R.I.: 7,534,904 (5,696 reported Thursday; 11.5% positive rate)
R.I. COVID-related deaths: 3,569 (4 reported Thursday)
Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID: 82 (5 in intensive care)
Fully vaccinated in R.I.: 833,350 (953,394 at least partially vaccinated)
Cases in Mass.: 1,855,500
Mass. COVID-related deaths: 20,544
Cases in U.S.: 83,770,549
U.S. COVID-related deaths: 1,003,956
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: COVID test-to-treat site opens in Providence