POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The Polk County Board of County Commissioners met Tuesday for a regular session and discussion of a letter drafted by a member to request Gov. Ron DeSantis make ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine more available to treat COVID-19 patients.

Both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin have not been approved for use to treat COVID-19, and neither drug has yet been scientifically proven to effectively treat the virus.

The letter was drafted last week, asking the governor to make what a commissioner called “possible life-saving” pharmaceuticals available to residents to fight off the virus, naming hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as examples.

The vote on whether to send the letter was pushed back to a discussion at the next BOCC meeting.

Vote on the letter delayed

After a long discussion, with input and questions from commissioners, doctors and the public commentary, the vote on sending the letter requesting ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and other alternative treatments for COVID-19 to the governor was delayed.

The BOCC did not vote to send a unanimous letter to DeSantis. The next BOCC meeting comes in two weeks, and commissioners decided to wait until a modified version of the letter was available to vote on instead. District 5 Commissioner Neil Combee said that while he would prefer not to wait longer, he would bring two letters to review at the next meeting for a vote on whether or not to send the request to the governor.

Commissioners, such as Randy Mink, warned against having private discussions of the content of the letter, if it were to be modified, in order to avoid violating Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which make such meetings and information public out of a need for government transparency.

To that end, Combee said while unhappy, he’d wait in order to have a unanimous agreement among the Board, and draft another version of the letter to review before sending one to the governor as a united front.

Words from the public

Public comments were opened for residents to express support or concern for the use of the two medications, among other alternatives. Three Polk County residents had signed up in advance. Everyone speaking at the meeting was asked to provide their addresses in Polk County and enter their name into the record.

The first to speak was Royal Brown III, a Winter Haven resident. He expressed his support for the letter written by Combee and DeSantis for allowing Floridians the right to try alternative treatments for COVID-19.

“I’m here to fully support the letter proposed by Commissioner Combee to Gov. DeSantis, our great governor to allow our rights to try the inexpensive, proven preventive treatments of ivermectin, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to prevent being infected by the Chinese Communist Party virus, COVID-19,” Brown said. “I’m 74 and a half years old, I have four of the five pre-morbidity conditions that would make this virus very dangerous if I were to be infected. I have bene vaccinated but there’s no guarantee the untested, unproven vaccine will protect me from being infected. I will not take the third booster dose, having learned of the many long term dangers of the vaccine. It is is your responsibility to allow me the liberty to choose to take these preventive medications and not join with other government and medical officials to block access to them. To do so, in my opinion, is medical tyranny.”

Next to speak was Glynnda White, another supporter of the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID-19, leveled criticism at the federal government over their “weaponization” of American’s health. She and Brown both mentioned their membership as part of the Winter Haven 912, a conservative activist group in Polk County.

“It’s criminal that our government has weaponized the health of American citizens. I believe those who have bene involved in this matter should be prosecuted. HDQ [hydroxychloroquine] and ivermectin are both proven cures for COVID-19,” White said. “Widespread use of these inexpensive and I might add FDA approved drugs would render unapproved vaccines unneeded. It is criminal that our federal agencies are so politicized that they have left true caring for American citizens in the dust and bent to the will and money of big pharma and politicians who will benefit financially from forcing the vax.”

White went on, explaining her concerns about vaccine side effects and efficacy.

“Vaccines have proven harmful or deadly to thousands of citizens across the nation. The governor has taken first steps by opening up Regeneron clinics across the state and it would be a small matter to make HDQ and ivermectin available and easily obtainable at these locations. To receive additional monies from the government, hospitals have stood in the way of proper diagnosis and treatment of COVID resulting in the death of many. Although the 912 has not had direct cases of COVID, we have several members who have become ill. One of whom has died while in the care of a Lakeland hospital,” White said.

She told the BOCC that the 912 member who had died from COVID-19 in the hospital could not see his wife for more than one hour per day.

White also asked the commission to make Polk County “a mask free county, meaning that no one can be forced in this county to wear a mask or other protection unless they feel at risk and want to do so. Masks are ineffective against COVID and are harmful, increasing lung issues for people. The psychological damage done to our population will never be measurable.”

Another resident, Nancy Pierce also supported the use of what she called alternative medicines to treat COVID-19.

Pierce said she was a COVID patient in October 2020. She said she was hospitalized for five days and was denied use of hydroxychloroquine, but was treated with remdesivir, among other medications.

Pierce says that had she been offered alternative medicines like hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, she would have recovered sooner. Pierce cited an interview she had seen on One America News Network with a Dr. Brian Tyson in California, who said he had treated roughly 5,000 for COVID with the drug, but only lost one patient, who “had another problem besides COVID.”

According to Pierce, the doctor recommended getting in contact with ALSD.com or MyFreeDoctor.com to get help getting hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin.

“It costs about $90 for the phone interview, plus whatever it costs for them to send the meds,” Pierce said. “If I would have known about this alternative, I would have definitely done it. We should be able to make our own treatment decisions.” She told the commissioners, “Your letter to Gov. DeSantis would definitely be a step in the right direction,” before briefly changing topics.

Pierce expressed her concerns about voting issues in Polk County, and the “million fraudulent votes” in Florida, and requested a forensic audit of the votes. She left when her three minutes to speak ran out.

During the public comment section, only one resident didn’t express support of the letter, Latrice Moore, a guardian ad litem.

“I am not here to debate the use of ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID. I am here to just ask why this is important for the commission, to take up this letter,” Moore said. “Now, Commissioner Combee, you’re background is in agribusiness. And I own farmland in another state, so if I had a question about how many acres or how much should I charge someone to lease out soybeans on my land, if it was irrigated or non-irrigated I would come and ask you. Commissioner Wilson, if I had a question about should I use anti-seizing lubricant on the sparkplugs for my F-150, I would come ask you.”

Still, Moore told the commissioners that she would not go to them for medical advice, and again asked why the right to try for treating COVID-19 was so important, despite other medical issues in the community.

“The commission has not taken up anything for insulin, which diabetes we know is the No. 1 killer among people in our country and our community, or heart disease,” Moore said. “So I just question the motive for why this is so important.”

Combee responded, comparing it to efforts made by former President Donald Trump to address costs of insulin.

“Access to insulin is a problem. You know there were bills in Congress trying to reduce the price of insulin, President Trump was championing that,” Combee said. “I don’t know where it wound up but I know he was trying to get the price of insulin access to insulin down. So when the top guy’s doing it, the county commission does not need to get involved.”

Commenters who came after Moore continued to express their support for the letter and use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Those who spoke included a local priest as well as residents from across the county, from Lakeland to Lake Wales. Some comments included swipes at the news media and criticism over what they say are useless masks. Others said that residents should do their own research instead of just trusting medical professionals.

Some residents in support of the letter urged the commissioners to sign it as a way to defend the right of choice for treatment by Polk County residents.

Dr. Brian Jurbala, an orthopedic surgeon, cited a study showing the efficacy of ivermectin for treatment of COVID. The study, which he brought copies of with him to the meeting to provide to commissioners, was produced by the Frontline COVID Critical Care Alliance.

Commissioner Combee makes his case

Following public comment, the commissioners began their own discussion to weigh whether or not they should send the resolution letter to DeSantis.

Combee was the first commissioner to speak and detailed the importance of the letter he proposed as a way to provide more help to those who are at higher risk to COVID-19 and more vulnerable due to economic factors.

“Data from around the world is showing that even vaccinated people can get serious cases of COVID. if you read the newspapers, if you pay a little bit of attention, you will know that Jesse Jackson and his wife are both in the hospital. Double-vaccinated, they’ve got bad cases of COVID,” Combee said.

He continued.

“Patrick Reed, one of the top golfers, double vaccinated almost died from COVID. breakthrough cases. we don’t hear about Bill Jones when he’s a breakthrough case, or Ruth Smith when they’re a breakthrough case, but they can’t hide it when celebrities or people who are known around the country get it, it winds up in the newspaper,” Combee said. “But there are plenty of others who are double-vaccinated, who are having breakthrough cases so yeah, they need help too, as was already pointed out earlier. We just can’t tell someone with a potentially life-threatening case of COVID that they have no options left since they’ve already been vaccinated. They have a right to try something that might work instead of just waiting to die.”

Combee bases his argument in support of the letter on patient needs and the 2015 Right to Try legislation he helped vote into law.

“All people with COVID have a life-threatening disease regardless of vaccine status,” Combee said. “It’s asinine to say ‘Well, Bob you have a life threatening disease but we won’t let you try this medicine,’ you won’t because it might give you a stomachache or something, it’s not just about ivermectin or any specific therapy, it’s anything that might help. It’s not about whether a drug is approved for a specific disease, that’s why you need a right to try. It’s about people’s right to try anything that might work.”

He said you have a right to try inexpensive drugs, whether or not your doctor agrees.

“Citizens have the final word on their health,” Combee said. He leveled criticism at media coverage of ivermectin, saying that the drug is more than just for horses or dogs, and that the news media’s goal is not to inform the public but to tell the story how they want it, instead of focusing on what Combee called the countless lives ivermectin has saved over the years since its authorization for use treating “debilitating diseases” and reduced human suffering.

He also criticized Democratic opponents such as Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a gubernatorial candidate, and the federal government in his comments about letting Floridians choose their medical treatments and vaccine hesitancy. Specifically, Combee took issue with a recent radio ad paid for by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Great news people. If you’ve been waiting on FDA approval for a COVID vaccine, we’ve now got FDA approval for a COVID vaccine,” Combee said. “If you’ve been waiting, now’s the time to get your vaccine…Comirnaty is the only FDA-approved vaccine and it’s not available, and it won’t be available for years. So this is a bait and switch that’s taken place. They’re trying to make people, with these advertisements, think that the vaccine, the Pfizer BioNTech is somehow FDA approved.”

However, the FDA gave full authorization and approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 23, 2021.

Combee then read off the list of side-effects for remdesivir, a treatment for COVID-19. He said the side-effects list was longer than that of ivermectin. On that point, the number of potential side-effects of each drug, the commissioner is correct.

Remdesivir does have a longer list of potential side effects than ivermectin. However, remdesivir is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through an emergency authorization for COVID-19 inpatient treatment, such as in a hospital.

Ivermectin, while FDA approved, is not approved for use as a treatment of COVID-19, instead it is approved for use against other illnesses such as onchocerciasis and strongyloidiasis, as well as roundworm, pubic lice, or scabies.

Medical experts address concerns, take questions

Commissoner George Lindsey introduced Dr. Joy Jackson, an internal medical doctor in Polk County and the current Director of the Polk County Department of Health.

“I have listened to all comments today, I understand the impassionment that everyone here has spoken, I will assure you that before I give my talking points that I have no goal to squelch people’s rights to dictate their own care, but I’m a physician and a scientist and I want to follow evidence-based guidelines and I want people to be safe. The enemy with this virus not each other, the enemy is the virus and we’re making this far too complicated,” Jackson said.

She presented some data on daily cases in Polk County, detailing a “significant surge of COVID-19” in the county since the middle of August, which she said was from the delta variant. “The impact of this on our community has been tens of thousands of people sickened, tens of thousands of people hospitalized, our hospital system strained, and yes, people dying. So it has been significant.”

Jackson detailed initial challenges with testing when the pandemic started, but said that now testing is “wide open.” The same was true for vaccinations, Jackson said, thanks to collaborations with the county and health care providers.

She said there are hundreds of locations to be vaccinated in Polk County.

“So what we’re dealing with now, the newest issue is the therapeutics,” Jackson said. “What does the medical science tell us? We learned, not only with COVID, but healthcare providers learn about diseases on the fly, you use your clinical judgment, you use your experience. that’s what drives a lot of clinical decisions at the front line while there is research being conducted to really see if there are studies that shows that one treatment is superior to another.”

Jackson said we’re in the “adolescent phase” of treatments now, following the same periods testing and vaccination. She said the goal is to have the virus go away, that’s everyone’s goal but “We can’t will it to go away. Every day we have to deal with the virus. We have to shift and accelerate and decelerate. It’s not going to be pretty for a while yet.”

While urging mitigation steps and vaccines, and praising use of monoclonal antibody treatments at “likely preventing hospitalizations,” Jackson called for effective outpatient treatments for mild cases and effective inpatient treatment for those with severe cases.

“We want people to be discharged. There’s no conspiracy that we want people to be sick,” Jackson said. “That’s very offensive for a physician. If you remember nothing else I say today, the most effective strategy to prevent infection is vaccination. Vaccines are safe and highly effective. Vaccines reduce the risk of serious disease, hospitalization, and death. Currently, 61% of eligible citizens of Polk County, which are people the age of 12 and older, 61% are vaccinated or have received the first dose of vaccine. We’re getting there. I’m not happy, but we’re getting there. Vaccination is by far the best prevention.”

Addressing breakthrough cases, Jackson acknowledged what’s happening and said the breakthrough cases are a reason boosters are being discussed and said it’s important for individuals to be responsible for their own health. She said high risk patients need to take mitigation measures, such as wearing masks.

Jackson said the evidence for use of hydroxychloroquine was not supportive of its use to treat COVID-19.

“We’ve had the hydroxychloroquine discussion. That occurred last year. This was the anti-malarial drug. It got a lot of attention. There have been multiple randomized trials, there has not been proven to be any benefit in non-hospitalized patients with mild, early, or asymptomatic disease,” Jackson said. “When they look at the amount of SARS-CoV RNA, in those that received it versus those that didn’t, there was no difference and there was no improvement, clinically. So this has not been a proven medication. There is significant risks of drug to drug interactions as well as adverse cardiac effects.”

On supplements, such as vitamins, Jackson said that they’re not harmful but there’s not evidence that it directly impacts COVID-19 or prevents it. However, Jackson said people just need to use common sense, and she won’t stand in the way of people taking regular doses of vitamins and supplements.

Addressing ivermectin, Jackson said the medication has not yet been proven at treating COVID-19.

“When you look at medications, you want to see if there’s side effects or harm, or you want to see if there is positive effect, and there are multiple opinions on this. Again, I’m a believer in the science, there are studies, there have been hundreds of studies that have gone on around the world, from Egypt to Iraq to Columbia, South America, all over the world if you want to spend days you can research that. which is what the FLCCC group did, there are currently a handful of studies occurring at high-level United States universities and research centers. I’m waiting on those. Until then, just be careful.”

She referenced that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had put out a health advisory at the end of August about the dispensing of ivermectin at pharmacies, misuse of doses and a rise in calls to poison control centers about overdoses and adverse effects from its use.

“Clinical trials and observation studies to evaluate the use of ivermectin to prevent and treat [COVID-19] have yielded insufficient evidence to recommend it yet,” Jackson said. “Data from adequately sized, well designed, well conducted clinical trials are needed to provide more specific evidence-based guidance.” She “strongly advised” the public not to self-medicate with ivermectin, and if they want to take it, to discuss it with a healthcare provider.

Dr. Daniel Haight, from the USF Morsani College of Medicine, Internal Medicine spoke next.

He began by explaining he had not been instructed to say anything specific, nor did he own any stock in pharmaceutical companies or received payments from any.

Haight detailed a study he had performed in partnership with Lakeland Regional Hospital and funded by Operation Warp Speed about the use of everyday medications to help treat effects of COVID-19, and discussed the work at Tampa Regional he performs as part of his work with the University of Florida. Dr. Haight works at both Lakeland Regional and Tampa Regional, in addition to his faculty duties at USF.

Talking about whether or not studies were being done to test for other ways to treat COVID-19, “The short answer is yes,” Haight said.

Haight said that soon there will be a study performed by Lakeland Regional through partnership with the University of Florida soon to examine the use of “readily available, currently available” medicines for COVID-19 treatment.

He said ivermectin was one of the medicines that would be tested, as well as atorvastatin and famotidine, among others. However, Haight said that the results he’s seen contradict some of the evidence presented during the public comment in support of the letter asking for access to ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

Haight cited his own research for evidence on ivermectin’s use as a treatment, and addressed the studies cited by Jurbala which were produced by the FLCCC.

“There’s the Roman, it’s actually not a trial it’s a report on the med analysis. Looking at a 1,173 people in 10 different trials, compared with the standard of care or placebo, ivermectin did not reduce all-cause mortality or length of stay or viral clearance,” Haight said. “The Cochrane Review, which is well respected, the Cochrane review said overall the reliable evidence available does not support the use of ivermectin for the treatment or prevention of COVID, outside of well-controlled trials. Quote ‘We don’t know if ivermectin vs placebo worsens or improves patient survivability,’ but I’m just one person.”

He said that were he to be speaking with a patient about how to proceed or prescribe treatments, he personally wouldn’t prescribe ivermectin, but he would discuss it with them.

Combee asked Haight about side effects of remdesivir, and Haight said the side effects that the commissioner had listed were typically not seen as far as the more serious side effects. Still, he said he has not been convinced of the benefit to patients. Haight said it’s a complex decision to make, based entirely on individuals’ symptoms, medical histories and medical conditions.

“If I’m saying that I’m not convinced, personally, and I can’t speak for a thousand other physicians, but if I’m not convinced of the benefits, then what I’m dealing with is basically risk,” Haight said.

The Right to Try Act

The Right to Try law referenced repeatedly was passed in 2015. In the statutes, it’s listed as FS 499.0295, and called the “Experimental Treatment for Terminal Conditions,” subtitled as the “Right to Try” enables those with a terminal condition as determined by two physicians to use medications or devices off-label as a life-saving measure, according to Jackson.

Jackson said that COVID-19 would not qualify, in a “wide description” as a fatal condition, due to a lower than 2% mortality rate.

Commissioner Lindsey clarified that by using the “Terminal Condition” understanding, the bar to make use of the Right to Try legislation as a way to allow ivermectin, and other alternatives, as treatment for COVID-19, may not meet the conditions set by the law.

Lindsey then briefly discussed going to state lawmakers for an adjustment to the law to “lower the bar” as a way to more widely allow its use in the conditions predicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.