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SC Senators Hear Testimony on Covid-19 Treatments

Nick Youngson

As South Carolina continues to grapple with thousands of new coronavirus cases that have burdened hospitals and disrupted schools, the panel of lawmakers that oversees medical issues is gathering testimony from people who want greater access to unproven alternative COVID-19 treatments not currently recommended by public health officials.

The Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee heard Wednesday from several doctors, including two from out-of-state, promoting the use of ivermectin, the cheap parasite drug that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19 but has been pushed by Republican politicians and conservative talk show hosts across the country and amplified via social media to millions of Americans who remain resistant to getting vaccinated.

Although the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control indicates on its website that ivermectin is not an evidence-based treatment for COVID-19, the agency can't stop providers from prescribing it or punish them for doing so, said Dr. Edward Simmer, the department's director.

"We don't tell providers what to prescribe or not," Simmer said.

Still, South Carolina has seen an increase this year in people requiring emergency care for exposure to ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that major studies have shown is not effective in treating COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Wednesday's five-hour-long hearing was the second in a series of meetings aimed at evaluating the availability of COVID-19 treatments in the state.

Last week, lawmakers heard from members of the public about their own experiences trying to secure coronavirus care for themselves and their families. Some said doctors ignored their pleas for ivermectin or other alternative treatments. Others reported difficulty navigating doctor's offices and hospitals to secure the monoclonal antibody treatment that is shown to lessen the harsh effects of the disease.

Growing demand for the antibody infusions has created a temporary bottleneck, with state health staffers driving doses of the treatment to clinics in the middle of the night to help even out supply, Simmer testified.

Some conservative lawmakers have also spoken before the subcommittee, urging the Legislature remove any bureaucratic or administrative barriers doctors may encounter while trying to prescribe alternative treatments.

On Wednesday, several representatives for medical and pharmacy licensing boards, as well as the South Carolina Medical Association, said they were unaware of any doctors or pharmacists who had faced professional consequences or complaints over the unproven treatments.

One family medicine physician in Spartanburg, Dr. Robert Jackson, claimed he was among the most prolific prescribers of ivermectin in his hospital system but had been warned against it by the hospital.

Two pediatricians described the continuing COVID-19 crisis in South Carolina, as children's hospitals remain full of young patients struck by the virus. There are three children so ill they are currently on ECMO, a machine that takes over the lungs to add oxygen to blood, said Dr. Elizabeth Mack, a pediatrician with the Medical University of South Carolina.

"South Carolina tops the charts in terms of COVID in children right now, in all the wrong ways," Mack said.

Those children do not have access to some of the treatments available for adults, including monoclonal antibodies, which are only federally approved for people 12 and older.

The best solutions to help protect children are the measures public health experts have repeatedly said will work to bring an end to the pandemic, doctors testified: getting vaccinated, social distancing and mask wearing.

Even as the state's latest COVID-19 surge appears to be on the decline, South Carolina is still reporting more than 3,000 new cases daily. Health officials have recorded 11,913 virus deaths in the state since the start of the outbreak, the 14th highest per capita death rate in the nation, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.

"If I told you we had a drug that 70% of the time would prevent COVID and almost always prevent death from COVID unless you had other underlying conditions, I think we'd jump all over that, wouldn't we?" said Dr. Anne Cook, an internal medicine physician and president of the state Board of Medical Examiners. "That's what the vaccine is."


Follow AP's coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.