Alberta family doctors will soon take on prescribing the COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid

In an effort to improve access to Paxlovid, the COVID-19 treatment, the Alberta government is moving the prescribing process into the hands of family physicians.

The province has a stockpile of 25,000 treatment courses of the antiviral medication — which is available to very specific groups of high-risk patients — and only 1,300 patients have been treated so far.

Eligible patients have to go through a complicated centralized system to get Paxlovid, and there are concerns people are not accessing it quickly enough because a positive lab test is required and the treatment must be given within five days of symptom onset.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Jason Copping confirmed plans are in place to make the drug available through community-based physicians. He said an official announcement is imminent. 

“Work is underway to transition the prescribing process to primary care,” he said during a news conference.

“Family physicians are getting tools and education to ensure they’re comfortable prescribing this medication, and I hope to announce soon that prescribing will be fully transferred to them.”

Family doctors preparing

Family doctors are already gearing up for this new responsibility.

“We want to enable the family physicians to be comfortable prescribing as well as testing,” said Dr. Ernst Greyvenstein, co-chair of the provincial primary care COVID-19 task force. He is one of the physicians who led an information session this week for about 300 doctors, presented by the Alberta Medical Association.

According to Greyvenstein, some family doctors have already started prescribing Paxlovid, but the overall transition will be gradual.

Dr. Ernst Greyvenstein helped lead a webinar for approximately 300 Alberta family doctors this week to help them navigate the complicated process of prescribing Paxlovid. (CBC)

“We are trying to improve access for patients,” he said. “We know that window of eligibility is very low — within five days of symptom onset — and by moving this into primary care offices, this should help with that as well as improve outcomes.”

Under the current system, people need to book a lab test. If the results come back positive, they are supposed to call the dedicated Health Link phone line (1-844-343-0971) and leave a message. 

Alberta Health said staff generally call back within 24 hours to assess eligibility. If patients qualify, they’re referred to a physician within the outpatient treatment program for a prescription. 

According to Greyvenstein, the new process will allow for confirmation of a COVID-19 infection through rapid tests.

“We recognize that the access to PCR testing is challenging as well as getting the results thereof. Having access to rapid antigen testing as well as being able to get the results on the spot and prescribe immediately would definitely help with access.”

Because Paxlovid is a new treatment, physicians are being provided with key resources, including tools to identify high-risk patients and information on drug interactions.

“We recognize we are at a crossroads, and we have to kind of start moving into a new normal. And that new normal will probably include testing in community offices, prescribing of whichever antiviral is available. And we’re very excited about that,” Greyvenstein said.

Alberta Health did not respond to questions from CBC News, prior to publication, about timelines, testing changes and how many physicians are already prescribing the treatment.

“Alberta has only recently received additional courses of treatment, and now that supply has increased, we’re working toward making it more broadly available by prescription, like other medications,” spokesperson Lisa Glover said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

“We hope to be able to announce changes shortly.”

Experts caution, though, the best defence against COVID-19 is still vaccination, and they continue to urge Albertans to get every dose available to them.

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