ATLANTA — When a Georgia veteran leaves the Veterans Affairs Medical Center after beating COVID-19, it is like a homecoming all over again.
Medical staff line the hallways, wave flags, cheer and clap for another battle won against an invisible enemy.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!,” one veteran cries, in a video posted by the Atlanta VA Medical Center to its Facebook page, as she was wheeled towards the exit.
But many other veterans have not been as lucky.
COVID-19 has killed more than 480 veterans in VA facilities across the country as of Wednesday morning.
Eight of those deaths were in the state of Georgia - and all, but one, were in the Atlanta area.
Despite the hard work of front-line workers at VA hospitals in treating patients, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been under scrutiny after news broke that research by the administration found a controversial drug it was using to treat COVID-19 might not be as effective as previously suggested by President Donald Trump, who once called it a potential game-changer in the treatment of COVID-19.
Recently released data shows, out of 368 veteran patients whose treatments the VA reviewed, retrospectively, 97 who took hydroxychloroquine had more than a 27% death rate. Another 158 veteran patients who were not treated with the drug had an 11.4% death rate.
"About 22% of those getting the drug plus azithromycin died, too, but the difference between that group and usual care was not considered large enough to rule out other factors that could have affected survival." (Click here for more on the study and breakdown of the data.)
"That's an observational study. It's not a clinical study. It was done on a small number of veterans - sadly, those of whom were in the last stages of life, and the drug was given to them. And I have to also say that we know the drug has been working on middle-age and younger veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told MSNBC last week.
The VA continues to minimize the results of the research at its facilities, saying the findings haven't been peer reviewed.
As a result, the department tells 11Alive, it is still using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 veteran patients in its facilities, including those in Georgia, under "FDA guidance.” The same FDA that warned, just last week, that the drug could cause "serious heart-related adverse events and death in patients with COVID-19."
A spokesperson with the Department of Veterans Affairs told 11Alive:
“FDA cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems," Jan Northstar with the VA wrote, quoting the FDA warning.
“It further states: ‘They are being studied in clinical trials for COVID-19, and we authorized their temporary use during the COVID-19 pandemic for treatment of the virus in hospitalized patients when clinical trials are not available…’ [The] VA is adhering to these guidelines, only using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 in cases where Veteran patients and their providers determine it is medically necessary.”
Northstar also explained in emails to 11Alive, “Georgia VAs are using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 in cases where Veteran patients and their providers determine it is medically necessary, and in a manner consistent with FDA guidance. Here are the facts: In certain cases, medical providers and patients want to try the drug, and FDA guidance, which VA follows, permits that. This is exactly the same principle Congress affirmed when it passed the Right to Try Act. VA only permits use of the drug after ensuring Veterans and caretakers are aware of potential risks associated with it, as we do with any other drug or treatment. VA has used hydroxychloroquine for years to treat a number of non-COVID related conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. This includes VA providers in Georgia. In fact, prior to COVID-19, VA dispensed about 42,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine each workday for non-COVID-19 treatments from its Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacies (CMOP) alone, primarily for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus”
Some civilian hospitals in the state of Georgia have also been using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients. Piedmont hospital told 11Alive it was using the drug but has stopped since the FDA issued its warning.
“We previously included hydroxychloroquine as an option in our inpatient treatment guidance for COVID-19, though it was left to the treating provider to decide whether or not to use it. Since [a recent] interview, additional information from subsequent studies has been published, and based on our review of this information, we chose to remove hydroxychloroquine from Piedmont's treatment guidance, so it is now not recommended for inpatient or outpatient management of COVID-19. We will change this recommendation if trial data shows benefit,” the Piedmont Hospital statement said.
11Alive also emailed Grady, WellStar and Emory hospitals, twice, asking for a statement on the use of hydroxychloroquine in their COVID-19 treatments; they have not responded.
Medical experts across the world are still examining whether hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment of COVID-19 but for now, there is no proven treatment or vaccine for the virus.
11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information.
We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information.