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Schumer wants details from VA on vets, hydroxychloroquine usage for COVID-19

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last month on Capitol Hill. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is demanding the Veterans Affairs Department provide geographic details and health outcomes for the 1,300 COVID-19-positive vets prescribed hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug promoted, without scientific evidence, by President Donald Trump as a "game changer" in the battle against coronavirus.

Schumer's request, in a letter sent to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Friday, comes as the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook — which briefly treated 30 residents who tested positive for the virus with hydroxychloroquine — told Newsday that the drug had failed to improve the health outcomes of those taking it.

Schumer's letter comes after officials told the Democratic senator that 13% of the more than 10,000 veterans being treated for coronavirus at VA medical facilities nationwide have been given the drug, commonly prescribed for patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The VA did not identify where those 1,300 patients were located or how they responded to the drug.

In Friday's letter, Schumer said he was "deeply concerned" with hydroxychloroquine's continued usage, even after a global study in the Lancet, a medical journal, found giving it to vets with COVID-19 increased their risk of death by 34% and heightened the risk of serious heart arrhythmias by a 137%.

The study prompted the World Health Organization to halt all hydroxychloroquine-COVID-19 studies, while France, Belgium and Italy each announced they would prohibit using the drug on coronavirus patients.

 “Veterans and veterans groups are right to demand more answers and more transparency from the VA on the use of this drug," Schumer said Friday, asking Wilke for a clinic-by-clinic breakdown of where the treatments were administered, along with the health results and any adverse events. "Because the answers we have gotten thus far have only led us to more questions. The agency seems to have treated serious inquires related to hydroxychloroquine like a puzzle, only releasing pieces of information as it sees fit."

More than 1,200 vets nationwide have died of COVID-19, the department has said, although advocates contend the number is significantly higher.

Schumer's letter also asks how clinicians at VA hospitals are being instructed to handle requests by patients to be treated with hydroxychloroquine and if they are being informed about studies showing the drug has no clinical health benefit in treating COVID-19.

Wilkie, testifying this week before a House Appropriations subcommittee, told lawmakers the VA had scaled back its use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 following the release of a separate study that showed patients taking it had a higher rate of death than those on different drug regimens.

The nationwide study of 368 patients found that 27% of those who took hydroxychloroquine died, compared to 22% of those treated with a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, an antibiotic, or 11.4% of patients not taking hydroxychloroquine.

“We have ratcheted down [the use of hydroxychloroquine] as we’ve brought more treatments online,” Wilkie told the panel, adding that the drug was administered to COVID-19-positive vets three times last week, down from more than 400 patients in late March. “And I expect that to continue. But our mission was to preserve and protect life.”

The VA has said the White House did not pressure it to prescribe hydroxychloroquine to COVID-19 patients. Trump, who touted the drug for months, relying primarily on anecdotal evidence, said he took hydroxychloroquine for two weeks but has since stopped.

The State Veterans Home, which has reported 80 resident deaths from the virus, has said hydroxychloroquine was used to treat 30 residents infected with COVID-19. The 350-bed nursing home said it stopped administering the drug in late April following an FDA warning that patients suffering from heart and kidney conditions could be at increased risk by taking it.

"After analyzing the data of our small cohort of COVID-19 positive residents that were approved for the use of hydroxychloroquine at the Long Island State Veterans Home, our medical team determined that there was no statistical significance in outcomes," the facility told Newsday in a statement.

Vincent Caselli, 80, a resident of the Stony Brook facility for the past five years, was treated with hydroxychloroquine for about three days, according to his wife, Arlene Caselli. She said the Veterans Home communicated the risk of potential side effects and sought permission before administering the drug to Vincent, who has Parkinson’s and suffers from dementia.

Arlene Caselli said she had to weigh the risk of taking the drug with the concern that Vincent, who has since recovered from COVID-19, would not survive the virus. 

"Which should I take a chance on? Should I take a chance that he gets sick enough and passes or should I take a chance that this works?" she asked.

It remains unclear how many of New York’s 79 VA facilities, including seven on Long Island, administered hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. 

A spokesman from the VA Medical Center in Northport, which runs five clinics on Long Island, referred questions to the VA.

A department spokeswoman declined to provide geographic locations of the 1,300 vets or their health outcomes, directing Newsday to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

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