Imperial County medical groups raise alarm about ‘unproven’ COVID-19 treatments
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors defied the warnings of medical groups Tuesday by hearing a presentation from two doctors who have promoted COVID-19 treatments, including ivermectin, that authorities say have not been proved to work.
The decision alarmed the Imperial County Medical Society, which had urged supervisors to “not contribute to the dissemination of false or misleading information by legitimizing unproven treatments.”
In a statement, the group said that “prevention and treatment of COVID-19 must follow the science.”
The family medicine physicians, Dr. George Fareed of Pioneers Health Center and Dr. Brian Tyson of All Valley Urgent Care, have publicly promoted the use of ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections that has not been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for preventing or treating COVID, as well as hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that had its authorization to treat the virus revoked last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that ivermectin can cause toxic effects, including vomiting and seizures.
After their presentations Tuesday in El Centro, Fareed and Tyson were greeted with a standing ovation from some in the audience. The doctors had argued that COVID-19 can be effectively treated early on with a protocol that involves multiple drugs, including some not authorized by the FDA for treating the virus.
Tyson called it “amazing that you guys are actually entertaining this conversation” and alluded to the concerns voiced by the medical society, telling the board, “I’m not a quack.”
He added that “if you get treatment early, and you get on your medications ... you’re going to beat this illness.”
In an interview ahead of the meeting, Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael W. Kelley argued that the board was not endorsing the doctors by hearing their presentation.
Kelley said the board fully supports vaccination and use of masks indoors, but since some people have refused such measures, “we want to make more information available to those people ... should they be so unfortunate as to contract COVID-19.”
When asked about concerns over the validity of that information, Kelley responded that other physicians were also welcome to come and speak.
Another supervisor, Ryan Kelley, said the medical society had been “trying to shut down conversation. And we need to have more conversation.”
Ryan Kelley, who is not related to the Imperial County chairman, suggested conducting a clinical trial of the treatment protocol, funded by the local health authority. Another supervisor, Jesus Eduardo Escobar, invoked the movie “Dallas Buyers Club,” about AIDS patients getting unapproved pharmaceutical treatments.
“Maybe they’ll make a movie about Dr. Tyson and Dr. Fareed,” Escobar said to applause.
Dr. Adolphe Edward, chief executive of El Centro Regional Medical Center, countered that when providing information to the public, “we need to stick with what we know is approved by the FDA for COVID-19 treatments.” At his hospital, he said, patients have asked to be treated with ivermectin, vitamins — even bleach.
“Misinformation itself ought to be stopped. Enough is enough,” Edward said.
Medical staff at El Centro Regional Medical Center released a statement this week warning that hydroxychloroquine and other “alternative medications” have not been shown to be effective, and “many carry serious side effects and toxicity, which have resulted in emergency room visits.”
The medical staff added that “it is important to know, that now, there is no proven cure for COVID 19 that is available” and that vaccination is “the most effective strategy against COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and complication.”
Tyson said during his presentation that vaccines are failing and stated that people are more likely to get the Omicron variant of the coronavirus if they are vaccinated than if they are unvaccinated — a claim health authorities say is false.
Public health officials have reported that although COVID vaccines have not been as effective against Omicron as they have been against the Delta variant, unvaccinated people are still far more likely than people who are vaccinated and boosted to be infected with Omicron, and unvaccinated people face the highest risk of severe illness and death. Early data from Britain show that those who have had three Pfizer-BioNTech doses have 76% effectiveness against symptomatic disease from Omicron.
Luis Flores Jr., co-founder of the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, said he was disappointed that the county board had allowed the presentation to go forward, arguing that “putting that information in public space in a community where access to credible doctors is harder to come by is particularly dangerous.”
Fareed and Tyson have also reportedly attended school board meetings where Tyson argued against indoor mask mandates for children.
Flores Jr. said that in Imperial County, such statements align not only with a political movement by conservatives but with people who believe in alternative medicine.
During the Tuesday meeting, Supervisor Michael Kelley repeatedly reminded attendees that they were required to wear masks inside, citing the state mandate.
Flores Jr. said that bringing in the two doctors and “not having the county forcefully say this is false makes a medically underserved community susceptible to misinformation.”
Supervisor Ryan Kelley said he didn’t believe the doctors were making “misrepresentations,” as the medical society had warned. “They’re trying to alleviate pain and suffering of their patients,” he said. “And I wanted to get that message out about early treatment.”
Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in Imperial County. Health officials were already bracing for a possible surge in winter cases driven by the Delta variant when virologists became concerned about the even-more-transmissible Omicron variant.
Imperial County had the highest rate of new coronavirus cases among California counties over the last week, with more than 330 for every 100,000 residents, according to The Times’ data tracker. That was more than twice the rate of Los Angeles County.
Intensive care units at El Centro Regional Medical Center and Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District have quickly become packed with COVID-19 patients in recent weeks.
Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.
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