A discussion on COVID-19 prevention at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly was derailed Tuesday night, when the borough mayor excoriated the hospital for what he said was the improper treatment of COVID patients in its emergency room.
It came after CPH Chief Operating Officer Shaun Keef gave a quarterly report on the hospital to the assembly, in which he discussed hospital finances and the current status of operations in light of COVID-19.
The presentation came amid surging COVID-19 case numbers and stagnating vaccination rates on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 83 new resident cases and four new nonresident cases on the peninsula Wednesday, while the borough’s vaccination rate among people 12 and older was about 45.5%.
Assembly member Tyson Cox asked Keef after his presentation if it would be possible for a doctor from Central Peninsula Hospital to present information about COVID-19 prevention at one of the assembly’s upcoming meetings. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce responded to Cox’s request by saying that if the assembly invites doctors to present to the assembly, they should also invite doctors who are “willing to treat or prescribe medications” for COVID-19.
“If we’re going to have doctors in the room, what I’d like to do is invite some doctors that are willing to treat or prescribe medications for COVID,” Pierce said.
Pierce, who said that he is not a doctor or a medical expert, shared anecdotes about what he believed was ineffective emergency room treatment received by a friend with COVID-19.
“I just can’t help but question, had he been given ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and a Z-Pak — at a minimum give him a Z-Pak — (if) he would have walked out of there,” Pierce said.
Pierce asked Keef if he would be willing to share a link with CPH’s emergency room doctors. The link goes to a website run by someone claiming to be a doctor in Texas who advertises ways to get hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin and how to preorder her book, “Let America Live!”
“TO REGISTER TO GET HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE OR IVERMECTIN CLICK HERE,” the site’s homepage says.
Pierce asked Keef how much the hospital charges emergency room patients who are not admitted.
“What do you charge them for the service?” Pierce asked. “I see that you’ve got $56 million in revenue. You’re doing pretty good.”
Pierce reiterated his request that Keef share the website with CPH’s emergency room doctors before Assembly President Brent Hibbert suggested the mayor set up a separate time to talk more about the issue with the hospital.
“There’s some discussion that needs to take place about how we’re treating our residents when they go to that emergency room,” Pierce said. “What I’m asking you is if you’re not willing to treat them in the emergency room, will you be willing to give your doctors this email and tell them, ‘Here’s an option for you?’”
CPH External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said Wednesday that whether or not someone is admitted to the hospital after coming into the emergency room largely depends on whether or not the patient’s symptoms can be treated at home and how severely they are struggling to breathe.
“We don’t want to admit anybody that doesn’t need to be admitted and doesn’t need to be in the hospital and incur that expense and inconvenience if they’re going to do well on their own at home,” Richards said. “They might prescribe some medicine for them … but other than that we certainly don’t want to admit somebody that doesn’t need extra medical care. That just doesn’t make any sense.”
He added that the assembly can hear presentations from anyone they allow, but that hospital administrators can’t tell doctors what to prescribe.
“They can invite whoever they want, they can have opposing sides, that’s up to them,” Richards said. “We were just trying to give the hospital quarterly report and report what’s happening here, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Soldotna City Council member Justin Ruffridge, who owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, criticized Pierce’s remarks.
“We need less of what we heard last night,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Ruffridge has helped spearhead COVID-19 vaccination efforts on the central Kenai Peninsula over the course of the pandemic.
Ruffridge said his pharmacy has previously received requests from people asking to be prescribed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, sometimes even if the patient does not have COVID-19.
“It does put providers and practitioners in a very awkward position where things are being demanded of them that they might feel uncomfortable with and see better options instead, and then they are sort of being pressured, in many cases, to provide it,” Ruffridge said.
When Soldotna Professional Pharmacy has dispensed hydroxychloroquine, which he said has proven in studies to have “zero efficacy” treating COVID-19, and ivermectin, which remains a “gray area,” Ruffridge said it comes with a lot of discussion with both prescribers and patients about the limits of the treatment and what the pros and cons are of moving forward with a particular treatment.
“It’s challenging because you’re trying, as a professional, to help people make good decisions, to give them all the available information that you’ve put a lot of energy and effort into (and) making sure you’re well-rounded in your approach,” Ruffridge said. “And then as you give that information, you’re just being challenged — very harshly in some cases.”
In contrast, Ruffridge said he focuses on two remedies that have been shown to be effective against COVID-19.
“There are two things that are really well-studied thus far and seem to have an effect on either treatment or prevention of COVID, and that is monoclonal antibodies and vaccinations,” Ruffridge said.
Monoclonal antibodies are what former President Donald Trump was given after he contracted COVID-19, and have become more accessible over the course of the pandemic, Ruffridge said. The treatment used to be given via infusion at a hospital, but can now be administered via four injections given over the course of an hour.
Ruffridge said the division over COVID-19 treatment makes his job harder. The pharmacy has received calls from people accusing them of working for “the bosses” and calls from people asking if they can be given certain drugs.
“When you hear someone very much attempting to sow a divisive attitude it can make your job just a little harder, especially when people pressure you to do something that you can see might not be super helpful,” Ruffridge said.
Ultimately, Ruffridge said that everyone would like for the pandemic to be over, but that leaders have the opportunity to unify, rather than divide, with their words.
“We’re all dealing with an issue that each of us is having to grapple with and grieve, in some cases, loss,” Ruffridge said. “That’s an opportunity for leaders to just say, ‘Hey, let’s stick together on this. Less hate, a little more understanding.’”
Tuesday’s full assembly meeting can be viewed on the borough’s website at kpb.us.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.