New York woman with coronavirus symptoms died last week after receiving cocktail of drugs with known heart side effects, and family members say she has not been tested for COVID-19 or for heart problems before receiving the medication.
The family’s experience suggests that at least some doctors prescribe hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin – drugs that President Donald Trump has promoted to treat coronavirus – outside of hospitals, highlighting why major medical organizations, including the American Heart Association, have issued warnings about the drug’s potential to trigger cardiac arrhythmia in some patients.
In early April, Ligia, a 65-year-old Queens resident, received medication from her general practitioner after reporting a bad cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Ligia’s last name is hidden at the request of her children.
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While Ligia’s symptoms were consistent with those of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, she was never tested for the virus, her brother-in-law Lee Levitt told NBC News. Ligia received the drug after talking on the phone with her doctor, said Levitt. She has never been evaluated in person and has not received any heart tests or warnings about potential side effects.
“It was handed out like a bag of cookies,” said Levitt.
NBC News made two attempts to contact Ligia’s doctor for comments. A man who answered the office phone and identified himself as the doctor then said there was a misunderstanding and offered to take a message.
Levitt admitted that the family does not know that the drugs caused Ligia’s death. The family has not received a death certificate.
Trump’s promotion of hydroxycholroquine, often in television briefings in the White House, has led to increased demand, although it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the coronavirus and doctors say its effectiveness is inconclusive. The drug is generally used to treat malaria and lupus. Azithromycin – better known as Z-pack – is an antibiotic.
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Since March 19, Trump has often touted drugs at his daily press conferences. March 21th he even tweeted that the drug combination could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” In a three-day period last month, liberal watchdog Media Matters said it found more than 100 reports of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine on Fox News, which Trump often watches.
The brass band around the untested drug combination has raised alarms among American cardiologists. In an interview with NBC News last week, cardiologist Michael Ackerman of the Mayo Clinic warned that doctors could prescribe the drugs without preselecting patients’ heart health.
Ligia’s story, Ackerman said on Tuesday, showed that the concerns were real.
“We knew there would be either ignorance, contempt or disrespect for the cardiac effects induced by the drugs,” he said, and that even “well-intentioned efforts to treat COVID-19 could actually cause sudden death.” of the patient. ”
“Unfortunately, we may have already proven the opposite,” he said.
Ligia filled her prescription on April 4, four days before the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology published guidelines for prescribing physicians hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. The AHA, in its guidelines, urged caution as “each has potential serious implications for people with existing cardiovascular disease”, including an increased risk of sudden death. The effect of the two combined has not been studied, said the AHA.
Ligia was diabetic and had high blood pressure but no known history of heart disease, said Levitt.
After taking three doses of the drug combination, Ligia suffered cardiac arrest early in the morning of April 7 and died before paramedics could reach her. Her 40-year-old daughter, guided by telephone by emergency medical technicians, had tried in vain to revive her.
At about the same time, the daughter of one of Levitt’s colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 was prescribed the same drug cocktail despite having a history of heart problems.
Lynn Donawald called Levitt the morning after Ligia’s death.
Donawald, the 32-year-old daughter of Donawald, who was recently diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, received a prescription from a telemedicine doctor she had never seen before and who asked no question about his underlying health issues, Donawald told me.
Donawald recalled his conversation with Levitt, which took place while his daughter’s husband was on his way to fill the prescription.
“Stop it. Stop him now, ”Levitt told Donawald, who hung up and immediately called his son-in-law.
“When I called Lee back, he was sobbing, telling me the story of his sister-in-law who died overnight,” said Donawald, whose daughter is recovering from the virus. The girl refused NBC’s request to identify the doctor.
Levitt said he believed it was essential that families speak publicly about the dangers associated with taking the drug.
“If no one wants to get up and say” This drug killed my loved one, “then others will certainly die like Ligia,” said Levitt. “It’s basically a game of Russian roulette; we do not know who can tolerate the drug and who cannot. “
It is not known how many Americans have received prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin and its potential for the treatment of COVID-19 is still under investigation. Scientists have warned of the main flaws in a first study suggesting that the drug could be effective in treating the disease, and the journal that published the study announced on April 3 that it was not meeting its standards.
More recently, a study of 150 patients hospitalized by doctors from 16 centers in China found that hydroxychloroquine did not help patients better than standard care and was much more likely to cause side effects. While the World Health Organization and laboratories in many countries are conducting larger clinical trials, the effectiveness of the drug remains anecdotal. However, the FDA granted emergency use authorization at the end of last month to distribute millions of doses of drugs to hospitals across the country, to be used specifically for hospital patients.
The Donawald and Levitt family stories show that the drug is administered outside the hospital.
“It is happening,” said Donawald. “Not once did they ask if my daughter had any heart problems or underlying conditions. They were just focused on the fact that it was positive “for COVID-19.