VA 'ratcheting down' use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients, Wilkie says

Abbie Bennett
May 29, 2020 - 11:44 am
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, left, holds up a document titled Hydroxychloroquine Timeline and Utilization as he speaks with Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill.

Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs is "ratcheting down" its use of an anti-malaria drug that is so far unproven as an effective treatment for the coronavirus.

VA has used the drug to treat more than 1,300 COVID-19 patients.

During a House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday on VA's pandemic response, Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department was decreasing its use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for virus patients. VA has used the drug as a treatment for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses for years. 

Wilkie provided lawmakers data to show the timeline of VA's use of the drug for COVID-19 patients, which peaked in late March and early April with 404 patients prescribed the drug. 

Use of the drug at VA dropped the most -- an about 79 percent decrease -- around the time a review of veteran medical records showed those treated with it were more likely to die, need ventilator support or were provided no benefit over standard care. 

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs showing a timeline of its use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.
Department of Veterans Affairs

VA officials so far have been unable to provide information about how many COVID-19 patients treated with the drug have recovered or how many have died or needed additional care. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said that "would require a review of all patient records." 

"What is astounding to me is the VA is still insisting on providing this drug to veterans," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., adding that VA has lacked communication on its use of the drug.

Wilkie said VA has "brought down the use" of the drug and last week prescribed only three doses to COVID-19 patients. He said he expects use of the drug to continue to decrease at department hospitals as treatments such as remdesivir increase. 

"We have ratcheted down as we've brought more treatments online," Wilkie told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday. "I expect that to continue." 

Previously, Wilkie praised use of the drug as a treatment for the coronavirus, claiming it was effective for some patients and criticizing studies and reviews showing it could be harmful. President Donald Trump also previously touted the drug as a potential "game changer" for virus treatment, and even said he was taking it himself as a preventative, though he has since said he stopped. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious-disease expert, said on Wednesday "scientific data is really quite evident now about the lack of efficacy" of hydroxychloroquine. But Wilkie said at the hearing that Fauci told him "we still have to leave the door open" to using the drug as a potential virus treatment. Wilkie and Fauci both serve on the White House coronavirus task force. 

"We are learning as we go," Wilkie said. 

But some lawmakers were unsatisfied with Wilkie's explanations. 

"I hope VA would respond to the science that is clearly coming from Dr. Fauci, rather than some wishful thinking from the president," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., committee chairwoman. 

As of May 28, VA reported 1,200 virus-related deaths and said it was tracking more than 13,650 cases. VA classifies just 1,200 of those cases as still "active" and says more than 11,000 are "convalescent," meaning they are recovering or it has been at least 14 days since they last tested positive. At least 31 VA employees have also died of the virus. 

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Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. If you require secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com.

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