Not every case of COVID-19 is the same. For some people, it can be like a cold or the flu. But for others, getting the coronavirus can result in hospitalization, long-haul COVID-19 symptoms or worse.

Fortunately, there are treatments that may reduce the chance of severe COVID-19. Below, we cover the details and if they may be an option for you.

Who’s at risk for severe COVID-19?

While there’s no way to know for certain, you’re more likely to get severe COVID-19 if:

  • You’re unvaccinated. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re more likely to die from COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Your protection against COVID-19 has diminished. If you had a COVID-19 vaccine or were sick with the coronavirus, your body developed antibodies to protect you from getting sick. But this protection lessens over time. So, if it’s been a while since your last vaccination or since you had COVID-19, you may no longer have the antibodies to protect yourself against the latest variants.
  • You have a weaker immune system. If you’re moderately to severely immunocompromised you may not have built up enough immunity to COVID-19 even after getting vaccinated.
  • You have a chronic health condition. Obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and lung disease can increase your chance of developing severe symptoms.
  • You’re middle aged or older.

Ways to reduce the chance of severe COVID-19 symptoms

Scientists continue to work on new treatments, medicines and methods to help reduce or prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms that could lead to hospitalization. Below, we provide information about the pills from Pfizer and Merck and the antiviral drug remdesivir.

COVID-19 pills

Two COVID-19 antiviral pills are available for people who have mild to moderate COVID-19 and who are at risk of progressing to severe disease. These pills are Paxlovid from Pfizer and molnupiravir from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Only Paxlovid is available through HealthPartners.

What are the differences between the Merck COVID-19 pill and the Pfizer COVID-19 pill?

  • Who can get them. The Paxlovid pill can be used by people 12 years of age or older. Molnupiravir is for adults only and should not be used during pregnancy.
  • Effectiveness of the treatments. When given to people with COVID-19 who had a high chance of progressing to severe illness, both pills reduced the likelihood of hospitalization and death. But the Pfizer pill was more effective – 85% reduction with Paxlovid compared to 30% with molnupiravir.
  • How they work. Paxlovid stops the virus from replicating in your body by blocking a specific protein. Molnupiravir creates multiple mutations of the virus within your body, making it difficult for it to continue to reproduce. Because the drugs don’t attack the spike protein, the part of the virus that changes the most with each variant, scientists hope that these drugs continue to work against future COVID-19 variants.
  • Side effects. The side effects of the COVID-19 pills are generally mild. The most common side effects of Paxlovid are a metallic taste in your mouth and diarrhea. Common molnupiravir side effects include diarrhea, nausea and dizziness. Other side effects of COVID-19 pills include high blood pressure, headaches, rashes, insomnia and flu-like symptoms. It’s also possible to have an allergic reaction to COVID-19 pills. And since the COVID-19 pills are still new, there’s a chance that not all side effects are known.
  • Who can take them. Paxlovid may not be appropriate if you have liver or kidney problems or are being treated for a HIV-1 infection. With molnupiravir there are concerns about mutations and birth defects.

What’s the COVID-19 pill treatment like?

You’ll need to take 3-4 pills, twice a day for 5 days.

When are the COVID-19 pills used?

Treatment begins after a confirmed COVID-19 case, preferably within five days of the first COVID-19 symptoms. So if you start to experience symptoms, do a rapid antigen test at home or make an appointment to get a PCR test – the most accurate type of COVID-19 testing – as soon as possible.

How can I get COVID-19 antiviral pills?

You’ll likely need to meet certain requirements before getting the medication. If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 at a HealthPartners clinic, and are at high risk for COVID-19, you’ll be receiving a call from us to talk about your treatment options. If you’ve received a positive COVID-19 test result from a home test, call your clinic.

Antiviral drug remdesivir

What is remdesivir? Remdesivir is another type of antiviral medication. In a clinical study, using remdesivir within one week of developing COVID-19 symptoms significantly reduced a person’s risk of progressing to severe illness, hospitalization or death.

Who can get the remdesivir drug?

Remdesivir was the first medication that the FDA approved to treat patients hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. But now, remdesivir can be used for non-hospitalized people with mild to moderate symptoms who are at high-risk of progressing to severe COVID-19. This medication can be used for both adult patients and pediatric patients who weigh at least 3.5 kilograms (about 8 pounds).

How does remdesivir work?

Remdesivir stops the duplication of the virus inside infected cells. It does this by inserting itself into the coronavirus RNA strand, or the genetic code for the virus.

Because remdesivir targets a specific part of the coronavirus that scientists believe won’t change much with newer variants, the medication should continue to be effective against both current and future versions of COVID-19.

When is remdesivir treatment used?

Remdesivir tends to work best in the beginning stages of COVID-19 infection when the virus is working hard to replicate itself in your body. Ideally, outpatient remdesivir treatment should start within seven days of infection.

Remdesivir can also be used to treat adults and children who’ve been hospitalized with COVID-19. In this situation, you may receive up to 10 doses of remdesivir for your symptoms.

Remdesivir treatment is delivered through intravenous infusion using a vein in your arm. You’ll need three doses so treatment with remdesivir can be a time commitment as you’d need to go to the clinic or hospital for three days in a row. And depending on how much medication you need, each infusion can take between 30 minutes and 2 hours.

What are remdesivir side effects?

Because remdesivir is delivered through your vein, you could have side effects similar to any infusion, such as low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, sweating and shivering.

Remdesivir can sometimes cause increased levels of liver enzymes, which can be a sign that your liver cells have been damaged or are inflamed. However, your doctor will do blood tests before giving you remdesivir to help you, and your liver, stay safe.

Remdesivir may not work in patients who take certain medications such as hydroxychloroquine sulfate or chloroquine phosphate. There may be other side effects or reasons why remdesivir isn’t right for you. Talk to your doctor about your options.

How can I get treated with remdesivir as an antiviral for COVID-19?

If you get treated at a HealthPartners hospital because you have a severe case of COVID-19, you may receive remdesivir for your symptoms. We are currently not able to offer outpatient remdesivir at this time.

Reduce your chance of severe COVID-19 symptoms

Even as the coronavirus continues to change, one thing remains the same: the COVID-19 vaccine is still protecting people from severe illness. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from severe illness is get the COVID-19 shots you need. And, if you or your children have tested positive for COVID-19 and are at high risk of getting severe COVID-19, talk to your doctor about options to keep a mild case from getting worse.