When the coronavirus came knocking on Vero’s door, Dr. Gerald Pierone, chief medical officer of Whole Family Health Center, was ready to jump into action. A board-certified internist and infectious disease specialist, Dr. Pierone was no stranger to deadly viruses, having been deeply involved in AIDS studies and treatment for decades. COVID-19 was a new challenge and call to action that he was ready to answer. Since his practice was already a part of an organization called ACT (Aids Clinical Trials), it took only a few changes to the infrastructure to begin tackling COVID-19.
“We set up a separate office where our patients came through the front door, our staff came through the back where we put on protective gear and we met in the middle exam rooms where we administered infusions and research studies for people who got COVID,” said Dr. Pierone.
“Once the monoclonal antibodies received authorization for high-risk people with COVID, we converted the COVID research center into a Monoclonal Antibody Infusion center. We couldn’t put someone into a placebo trial when we knew we had lifesaving therapy, so anyone who qualified for monoclonal antibodies (those over 65 or 55-to-65 with comorbidity) were given the treatment.
“Back in January we were doing two a day, now we’re down to one every other day. Since most of the people in our county over 65 have been vaccinated, we are not seeing the sicker people with COVID who are potentially at risk over hospitalization or death.”
Clinical trials are still being done at Whole Family Health Center for those patients who don’t qualify for monoclonal antibodies. “These are mostly younger people who are sick but normally would not get any therapy,” Dr. Pierone continued. “When they go into the study, they either get an active drug or a placebo – an oral anti-viral drug or a placebo, an inhaled interferon or a placebo, or an intravenous monoclonal cocktail or placebo. That way we can find better therapies for COVID.”
Right now, treatment for a younger person with COVID is mostly watchful waiting. If someone under 40 is sick and they don’t meet the criteria for monoclonal antibodies, they are given an oxygen monitor and told to check their levels. If their oxygen level falls below 93 percent, they are advised to go to the emergency room.
“We’ve also given about 20,000 vaccines out of both of our offices since the pandemic started,” Dr. Pierone said. “We’ve been doing vaccines since the beginning. As soon as they were deployed, we set up massive Saturday and Sunday clinics at both our Vero and Fort Pierce locations in addition to administering vaccines during our normal clinic business hours. As more vaccines became available and pharmacies and grocery stores started doing it, we stopped our weekend clinics.”
COVID-19 cases in Indian River County have been dropping steadily and new cases that are occurring are disproportionately younger people who are not as sick. Even with more communicable virus variants in the mix this spring, cases are not going up, which Dr. Pierone believes is directly related to vaccine deployment.
Dr. Pierone founded Whole Family Health Center three decades ago as the Aids Research and Treatment Center of the Treasure Coast (ARTCTC). The HIV clinic transitioned to a multi-specialty healthcare practice that provides primary care, pediatrics, behavioral health, pharmacy, and chronic care management about 10 years ago.
The practice’s two Treasure Coast clinics operate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and Federally Qualified Health Center Look Alike (FQHC-LAL), which gives the organization additional resources to care for medically underserved populations in the community.
“We take care of everyone regardless of their ability to pay,” said Dr. Pierone. “That being said, we see patients from all walks of life, ranging from beachside residents to homeless people.
There are so many people moving to Florida and such a need for primary care that we are struggling to keep up with the growth of our patient base. We now have over 100 healthcare professionals meeting the needs of nearly 10,000 patients throughout Indian River and St. Lucie counties.”
In addition to doing research and treating infectious diseases at Whole Family Health Center, Dr. Pierone also provides aesthetic services at his cosmetic practice, Facial Rejuvenation. He developed his unique skillset utilizing facial fillers to combat facial lipoatrophy or facial wasting in AIDS patients.
Even though we were saving HIV patients’ lives, their facial disfiguration from the disease and the medication was devastating. Their faces were skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks. I started treating them with facial fillers to enhance their appearance and boost their confidence. My passion for facial rejuvenation was ignited by the potential to produce transformational results for my patients.”
Dr. Pierone opened Facial Rejuvenation 16 years ago and treated AIDS patients exclusively for the first three years. Soon he started getting requests from friends and family of patients asking if he could help them look better.
About 13 years ago he transitioned Facial Rejuvenation into a full-service aesthetic cosmetic practice offering a plethora of face and body enhancements. To date, he’s performed more than 20,000 filler treatments and is often called upon to teach and train other providers.
Dr. Gerald Pierone received his medical degree from the University of Florida and completed his internal medicine residency training at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. He trained in infectious diseases at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. He can be reached at Whole Family Health in Vero Beach at 772-257-5785 or in Fort Pierce at 772-468-9900, or at Facial Rejuvenation in Vero Beach at 772-978-0484.