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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


The cough and congestion had intensified overnight. At 10:30 a.m., the at-home COVID test confirmed this was more than a bad cold, prompting the patient to seek a prescription for Paxlovid, a powerful antiviral treatment that can prevent mild COVID from progressing to something far more serious.

With local clinics jammed, the patient turned to a state program that speeds access to this medication for those eligible to take it. Less than two hours after testing positive, the patient had obtained a no-cost telehealth appointment with a medical provider, who in turn approved a Paxlovid prescription. The medication was ready at a nearby pharmacy by midafternoon.

The patient in this case was a Star Tribune editorial writer, and this was her swift path from diagnosis to treatment last week. With the virus again making rounds, it's good to know that this convenient option remains available thanks to the state's COVID-19 Test-to-Treat Telehealth Program, which was launched during the pandemic and is still helping those who are ill. It is especially important to be aware of this valuable program as concerns mount nationally about COVID antivirals' underuse.

While COVID hospitalizations are nowhere near previous peaks, winter has brought a concerning increase in the number of people needing this level of care. Far too many people have not taken advantage of booster shots that fight new variants. Breakthrough infections can sometimes occur in those who are up to date, but the vaccine remains a potent weapon against the virus.

Antiviral medications such as Paxlovid also have an important place in medicine's arsenal. In the clinical trial supporting the drug's emergency use, researchers found an 89% reduction in the risk of hospitalization and death. "That number was high enough to prompt the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to prioritize it over other COVID-19 treatments. Studies outside the laboratory have since confirmed Paxlovid's effectiveness among people who have been vaccinated," Yale University reports.

That was a vaccinated editorial writer's experience, with noticeable improvement — akin to an airplane pulling out of a dive — in about two days.

But antivirals have a relatively narrow window to begin use. Medications must be taken within five days of symptoms' onset to be effective, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) advises.

That's why the state program is so vital. The virtual appointments — available online, through the Cue Health app or via a phone call — bring care to you, cutting critical time to treatment. According to the program, 76% of patients meet with a clinician in under 10 minutes. Again, there's no cost.

Prescriptions are relayed to the patient's preferred pharmacy or, in some areas, delivered to their home. Insurance copays may apply for the medication, but assistance programs are available. "The PAXCESS program provides free or low-cost Paxlovid, whether you have public insurance (Medicare, Medicaid), private insurance, or no insurance at all," MDH officials said. The state program also offers access to another COVID antiviral: molnupiravir.

It's important to note that not everyone is eligible to take antivirals. Paxlovid is approved for use in adults, though some adolescents may be eligible to take it. The medication is intended for those at high risk of severe disease, a group that's broader than many assume. Risk factors include age (severe illness risk starts going up after age 50); chronic conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, kidney problems, cancer or diabetes; conditions weakening the immune system; smoking; being overweight; having a mental health diagnosis (including depression), and dementia.

There are a few health conditions that may preclude Paxlovid's use. Some patients may have to suspend use of other medications while taking it. It's still worth inquiring about antivirals if you have COVID, with the program offering broad access to services.

"There is no ID, residency, citizenship or other requirement, and the program is available in 11 different languages," MDH stated. It is also "test agnostic," meaning any test, including those purchased at a drugstore, can be relied on for diagnosis.

State health officials merit fulsome praise for having the foresight to continue this program. There's still clearly a need for timely antiviral access. To get an appointment, go online to or call 844-609-2415.