Gov. Ron DeSantis continued praising a malaria drug not certified to treat COVID-19 during a Tuesday press conference, but he called on medical professionals and a patient’s testimonial to back up hospitals’ use of the drug.
President Donald Trump has promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the novel coronavirus, even as his own medical advisers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, remain hesitant to elevate the use of the unproven drug. DeSantis quickly jumped behind Trump’s support of the medication, first mentioning its use during a late-March press conference.
And on Tuesday, the Governor turned to two Florida doctors for an expert opinion on the drug’s use. Dr. Carlos Campo from Tallahassee Memorial Hospital joined DeSantis in the Capitol while Dr. Sunil Kumar from Broward Health tuned in over Zoom.
“I think we need to have every option that’s available for these patients,” Kumar said. “Some of these patients are very, very sick, so we are looking at what’s available and that’s the right way to do it.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved hydroxychloroquine to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, but not COVID-19. The drug has some side effects, including causing heart rhythm problems, that have given some doctors like American Medical Association President Dr. Patrice Harris pause in giving their personal OK for the drug.
While Campo urged that hydroxychloroquine should only be used for inpatient treatment, he said early indicators from clinical trials have suggested it could help some people’s bodies fight the virus faster. However, he did not consider the drug a cure for COVID-19.
Kumar said his team has used the malaria drug in combination with others to great results. As of Monday, Broward Health started treating all patients admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, though it is not the only possible treatment.
DeSantis’ team also played a video from one patient in his hospital bed giving an emotional thank you to doctors for trying the drug on him, adding that they saved his life.
“To me, that’s very powerful,” the Governor said. “Obviously, you guys are making sure to leave no stone unturned in treating these folks, and this was an individual who was in really rough shape.”
Until recently, Teva Pharmaceuticals, the Israel-based producer of hydroxychloroquine, was unable to export shipments from its India factory, halting access to the drug. DeSantis said he spoke with Trump, who spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and now India has cleared the drug’s export to only the United States.
Despite a lack of FDA approval and disagreement among his advisers, Trump has repeatedly called for broader use of the drug.
“What do I know, I’m not a doctor,” Trump said Sunday. “But I have common sense.” In promoting the drug’s possibilities, the President has often stated, “What have you got to lose?”
That day, Florida hospitals began using 5-minute “instant” COVID-19 tests created by Abbott Laboratories.
“You’re talking about protecting the health care workforce, you’re talking about identifying patients as they first come into the hospital with certain symptoms,” DeSantis said. “To be able to rule out somebody for COVID, that really helps the hospitals be able to make the best use of their resources.”
As of Tuesday morning, Florida has 14,504 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 254 fatalities. At least 1,777 Floridians have been hospitalized.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.