Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick on the retirement of its chief epidemilogist Reno Gazette Journal
County leaders had a change of heart about state restrictions on chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine
Washoe County has backed away from the legal fight against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s partial ban on a pair of controversial anti-malarial drugs often touted as a coronavirus treatment by President Donald Trump.
The county Board of Commissioners on Thursday near-unanimously decided to withdraw its support for a lawsuit challenging Sisolak’s restrictions on the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients, citing “new developments” in other medications to treat the deadly disease.
Trump, a self-described “big fan” of the once-obscure treatments for malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, has referred to the drugs as a potential game changer in the battle to contain the coronavirus — statements that are thought to have contributed to confirmed shortages of the drugs.
Days after the president trumpeted the treatments, Sisolak issued an executive order prohibiting them from being prescribed outside of a hospital setting. The move, meant to prevent hoarding, immediately drew the ire of top Republicans and confused some residents who had heard Trump’s praise for the medications.
Sisolak’s partial ban also came under fire from the Nevada Osteopathic Medical Association, or NOMA, which filed a lawsuit arguing the order needlessly limits many doctors’ ability to treat patients who might need the drugs.
At first, members of the GOP-dominated county commission enthusiastically endorsed that argument, only to change their mind after the emergence of an even newer experimental treatment called Remdesivir.
County leaders — who last month insisted that chloroquine prescribing decisions should be left up to doctors and their patients — now feel that the use of Remdesivir is adequate to address Washoe’s “broader interests” in preserving public health during the coronavirus outbreak.
“This was never about a political push or bias one way or the other,” Board Chair Bob Lucey, a once vocal opponent of Sisolak’s chloroquine restrictions, said during a special meeting on Thursday. “This was purely about the medicine, and the medicine has changed.
“Since we’re not seeing a (surge), I no longer see the relevance in moving forward with an amicus brief.”
Vice Chair Marsha Berkbigler, who previously couldn’t see “any reason why we shouldn’t support” the legal fight, offered a slightly different explanation for distancing county leaders from the issue.
“I’ve since learned some things that are going on with NOMA and their attorney that have made me more than a little unhappy,” Berkbigler said. “So I still think doctors should be able to prescribe legal drugs to patients. I haven’t changed that position … but I think it’s probably a good idea to pull this legal brief.”
Berkbigler did not elaborate on her concerns about NOMA and the group’s attorney, retired professional boxer Joey Gilbert.
Commissioner Kitty Jung, the panel’s lone Democrat and the only member who initially opposed the amicus brief, took something of a victory lap moments before the filing was officially withdrawn.
“This just gives us all some lanes to stay in, I think,” Jung told her colleagues. “I think we need to be very careful with (amicus briefs).
She later applauded Lucey’s decision to reconsider the move, explaining leaders ought to be less afraid of changing their minds.
Commissioner Jeanne Herman, who has called Sisolak’s prescription prohibition a “cruel assault on our lives,” cast a lonely vote in defense of the brief, which she said ought to be reconsidered at a future meeting.
Despite regular, rousing endorsements from Trump, doctors have repeatedly urged patients to be cautious with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which have not been rigorously tested as a treatment for COVID. Small studies conducted in France and China produced mixed conclusions about its ability to beat back the fast-spreading virus.
Chinese researchers studied 30 patients and found that hydroxychloroquine performed no better than traditional treatments. The French study of 20 patients determined the drug helped half of those who took it.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only recently authorized widespread use of the treatments, and only after regulators decided the scale of the ongoing pandemic justified emergency use of the unproven treatments in a hospital setting. Even then, officials and health experts were careful to point out well-known side effects, such as heart problems, associated with the drugs.
In late March, Sisolak said there was “no consensus” about the treatment among Nevada health experts.
James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
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