In this photo provided by Pfizer, a lab technician places a Paxlovid tablet into a machine which applies pressure to test the pill's physical strength, in Freiburg, Germany in December 2021. Credit: Pfizer via AP

Charles Bunting had no idea what Paxlovid was before his doctor’s office offered to prescribe it to treat his COVID-19 symptoms a month ago. He is now encouraging anyone with the illness to take it.

The 62-year-old from Rockport said he had a slight fever, runny nose, a cough and some brain fog when he called his doctor at Pen Bay Medical Center to let them know he was sick. His local pharmacy did not carry it, so he had to drive to the Belfast Hannaford and have someone pick it up inside. He took his first dose right before he went to bed around 9 p.m.

When he awoke a few hours later, Bunting said his condition had improved immensely.

“I was immediately feeling great,” he said.

As Maine enters its third year of the pandemic, there are more tools to treat COVID-19, which  can cause long-standing health effects that are just beginning to be fully understood. Oral antiviral medications can save lives and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by vulnerable patients as they were during surges last year.

Pills including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are increasingly seen as one of the best ways to keep people out of the hospital. Health experts say an initial period of scarcity has waned as production of therapeutics has picked up. Some health centers are seeing their supplies sit amid a lack of interest while others have begun prescribing them more regularly.

“Initially we had to be very selective about who got it,” said Erich Fogg, the clinical director of York Hospital’s walk-in services. “For 10 people who requested it, maybe only two got treated. Now we’ve relaxed and are able to prescribe it more.”

York Hospital stood up a site as part of President Joe Biden’s “Test to Treat” program, where people can get tested for the virus and then get treatment and medications at once. Initially, Fogg said there was initially barely any interest. By mid-March, demands for therapeutics jumped, likely due to increasing word of mouth and messaging around treatments.

Getting treatment quickly is key to their effectiveness. Paxlovid and Molnupiravir need to be taken within 5 days of symptoms appearing. That relies on people getting tested.

Demand is uneven across the state. Not every health care facility might have the medications. The state keeps a list of where therapeutics can be found free of charge. Some places, like Federally Qualified Health Centers, may get their supplies through the federal government. Only a few of those centers have access to the treatments, but they have not seen high demand, said Bryan Wyatt, a spokesperson for the Maine Primary Care Association.

Penobscot Community Health Center, one of those health centers in Bangor, has seen few patients interested in the oral medications, said Frank McGrady, the director of pharmacy. He thought people might be wary of their emergency use status and that omicron’s less severe symptoms might have encouraged people to tough it out rather than accessing care.

“People are thinking they’ll get through this like they get through the flu,” McGrady said.

Bunting said his case was probably not severe and that he would have been fine without the medication. But he is happy he did not have to find out.

“I would tell anybody who has COVID who is offered this medication to not even think about it,” he said. “Just take it.”