Veterans have expressed frustration at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Martha McSally due to their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie announced last Thursday that his department has all but stopped use of an unproven malaria drug on veterans after weeks of providing the medication in an attempt to offer hope to veterans with coronavirus.
Wilkie defended the initial use of hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients as justified “to give them hope,” given few treatment options at the time. But Wilkie said that government-run VA hospitals have “ratcheted it down” — to just three prescriptions in the last week — as studies pointed to possible dangers and other possible treatments were brought online. “I expect that trend to continue in the future,” he added.
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President Donald Trump has heavily pitched the drug — even saying in recent days he had been taking it to prevent coronavirus infection — without scientific evidence of its effectiveness.
The drug also received support from Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., during a tele-town hall in late April. According to the Arizona Daily Star, McSally told listeners that certain medical providers had provided anecdotal evidence supporting the drug’s beneficial use by people experiencing coronavirus symptoms.
An analysis of a study conducted by the VA found that, while hundreds of veterans had been prescribed hydroxychloroquine, there was no evidence that benefited those suffering from COVID-19. About 28% of veterans who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11% of those getting routine care alone.
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Major veterans organizations had called on the VA to explain its use of the drug after the study was released. Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the decision to continue its use, “incredibly troubling.”
“Why were veterans who were receiving treatment from a federal agency being treated with an unproven and speculative drug?” Butler said in an April 22 press release. “What was the approval process used by doctors, patients and their families in discussing and agreeing upon this treatment option?”
It wasn’t until May 28, more than a month after the release of the study, that the VA would continue using the drug in limited forms such as clinical trials, based in part on the guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.
The actions of Wilkie – and subsequent support from McSally – have Arizona veterans concerned that national leadership is putting their health at risk. Catherine Smith, an Air Force veteran from Phoenix, said that, to her, the senator’s actions don’t have Arizonans best interest in mind.
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“Veterans are dying from COVID-19 here in Arizona, and in VA centers everywhere. As an Air Force Academy grad, we were taught how to lead, we were taught how to show courage in the face of adversity,” said Smith. “[Sen. McSally’s] response to this national response has me a bit worried.”
McSally’s response is part of her larger strategy to side with Republican leadership at all levels. In addition to promoting Trump’s support for the unproven malaria drug, McSally has recently expressed support for coronavirus relief plans that were touted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell but derided by local leaders throughout Arizona.
“Mitch McConnell continues to fail us. He is not doing enough to stop the spread of coronavirus and protect veterans like myself from the fallout,” said Joanna Sweat, a Marine Corps veteran from Chandler. “Coronavirus has hit Arizona hard, and we’re told the worst is yet to come.”
Data shows that the toll of the virus on military veterans has been particularly harsh. As of Monday, the VA has diagnosed more than 12,00 veterans as testing positive for the coronavirus, with 1,725 virus-related deaths. The veteran population is more susceptible to the virus, as they are older, have underlying health problems, and many reside in facilities that have been breeding grounds for the disease.
A fact that Reggie Yates, an Army veteran from Phoenix, knows all too well.
“Veterans like myself may be especially vulnerable,” said Yates. “These are perilous and uncertain times, and I think it’s important how our elected representatives respond to the needs of Arizonans.”