NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Another tool is in the toolbelt of Tennesseans to fight against severe hospitalization and death.

The Tennessee Department of Health announced two pills are now available in retail stores for antiviral COVID-19 treatments.

It feels like a step forward in the pandemic that’s often felt like a revolving door.

“Transitioning into the omicron variant, it is here, and it’s here in a big way,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state health commissioner.

The Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for COVID-19 treatment pills from pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer.

“Unvaccinated individuals are still at the highest risk, even if this is a milder variant,” Piercey said.

However, the larger news is, it’s finally available at retail stores like Walmart and Sam’s Club for people infected with COVID.

“When you have a lot of unvaccinated people and a very highly transmissible variant you’re still going to have some individuals with very severe disease,” Piercey said.

The pills’ availability comes as COVID cases are surging with plenty of community spread.

“Both drugs Paxlovid and Molnupiravir both target the virus as it tries to copy itself inside the cell,” said Dr. Mark R. Denison, professor of pediatrics with the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Denison has studied coronaviruses for decades and predicted the pandemic. He helped lead the research and development of the compound used in the pills.

“Early studies indicate these treatment options may reduce severe outcomes from COVID-19 including hospitalization or death. These treatments are recommended for individuals who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19 or have underlying medical conditions.”

Tennessee Department of Health

The state was given an initial total supply of 6,000 courses from the federal government.

“Everybody should get the vaccine, should get the boosters that have shown to really prevent severe disease and then those people who would be at the highest risk for severe disease, the elderly, those who are immune-compromised those who for some reason can’t get the vaccine — either very young or very old or other reason then we have another tool waiting to help us,” Denison said.

Health leaders say the antiviral drug may help treat COVID but it is not a substitute for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“In the case of both of these drugs, the thing you have to do is use them very early because once the virus has copied itself or once the virus has caused damage to the body then you can kill all the virus you want but you’re not going to change the disease,” Denison said.  

Tennesseans ages 5 and older are eligible for the shot.