An Oklahoma doctor has said overdoses of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, which many believe without evidence can prevent or cure Covid-19, are helping cause delays and problems for rural hospitals and ambulance services struggling to cope with the resurgent pandemic.
Ivermectin is used to kill internal and external parasites in livestock animals and, in smaller doses, in humans.
â€œThe [emergency rooms] are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated.
â€œAmbulances are stuck at the hospital waiting for a bed to open so they can take the patient in and they donâ€™t have any, thatâ€™s it. If thereâ€™s no ambulance to take the call, thereâ€™s no ambulance to come to the call.â€
McElyea told the Tulsa World a colleague was forced to send one severely ill Covid patient to a hospital in South Dakota, three states away to the north.
â€œThey had sat in a small hospital needing to be in an [intensive care unit] for several days, and that was the closest ICU that was available,â€ he said.
Oklahoma is among states struggling to cope with a surge in hospitalisations and deaths caused by the Delta virus variant. According to Johns Hopkins University, in the past week Oklahoma has recorded more than 18,400 cases and 189 deaths. The same source puts the death toll in Oklahoma over 8,000, out of more than 647,000 across the US.
The vast majority of US hospitalisations and deaths are among unvaccinated people. Amid opposition to vaccines and public health mandates stoked by Republican politicians, conservative media and disinformation on social media, many have turned to ivermectin.
This week, the influential podcaster Joe Rogan, who has been dismissive of vaccines, announced he had tested positive for Covid and was taking ivermectin.
In Arkansas, the drug was given to inmates at a jail. Louisiana and Washington issued alerts after an increase in calls to poison control centers. Some animal feed supply stores have run out of the drug because of people buying it in its veterinary form.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited a case of a man who drank an injectable form of ivermectin intended for cattle. He suffered hallucinations, confusion, tremors and other side effects and was hospitalised for nine days.
McElyea told KFOR: â€œGrowing up in a small town, rural area, weâ€™ve all accidentally been exposed to ivermectin at some time. So itâ€™s something people are familiar with. Because of those accidental sticks, when trying to inoculate cattle, theyâ€™re less afraid of it.â€
Authorities have tried to debunk claims that animal-strength ivermectin can fight Covid-19.
â€œTaking large doses of this drug is dangerous and can cause serious harm,â€ the US Food and Drug Administration warned, adding that the drug can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures, delirium and death.
The American Medical Association appealed for an â€œimmediate endâ€ to the drugâ€™s use, outside studies seeking to determine if the drug has any use against Covid-19, with federal and state regulators tracking side effects and hospital admissions.
A panel from the National Institutes of Health found â€œinsufficient evidenceâ€ for or against using the drug for Covid-19.
In Oklahoma, McElyea said: â€œSome people taking inappropriate doses have actually put themselves in worse conditions than if theyâ€™d caught Covid. The scariest one that Iâ€™ve heard of and seen is people coming in with vision loss.
â€œYou have to ask yourself, â€˜If I take this medicine, what am I going to do if something bad happens?â€™ Whatâ€™s your next step, whatâ€™s your back-up plan? If youâ€™re going to take a medicine that could affect your health, do it with a doctor on board.
â€œItâ€™s not just something you look on the internet for and decide if itâ€™s the right dose.â€