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Doctor spars with Hawaii lawmakers over COVID-19 stance

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Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state’s health director for Maui, is striking back against state lawmakers who last week called for him to be fired over his involvement with a group that has been spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines and statements that he made to the media supporting the use of controversial drugs ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

Federal and state health agencies have repeatedly warned that the drugs have not been proven effective in treating COVID-19 and could cause serious harm. They also worry that the drugs are being promoted as an alternative to the vaccine, which has been proven safe and effective in protecting against the virus.

In addition to facing calls from state lawmakers that he be fired, the Hawaii Medical Board filed a complaint against Pang, putting his medical license at risk.

Pang, in a lengthy statement submitted to the media on Tuesday, said that such actions defied the spirit of aloha. It’s not clear if the statement, which refers to Pang in the third-person, was intended to be attributed to a spokesperson.

“Sadly, (Pang) has to now respond publicly, when so much damage has already been done. How can we stand by our decisions, when decision makers try to silence experts, without even asking for input?” according to the statement from Pang. “Have we forgotten how to ask questions civilly, before acting? Public servants should never be bullied. That is not Aloha.”

Pang suggests that he is a whistleblower who is being attacked by lawmakers.

“Recklessly going after a man of medicine who has saved countless lives, without checking the facts, is unconscionable,” according to his statement. “Whistleblower-level obstruction by legislators is a potential violation of longstanding FDA guidelines.”

Pang says that “at stake here is the right of M.D.s to make medical decisions” in accordance with guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration relating to off-label prescriptions of drugs.

“It is irresponsible, inappropriate, and possibly criminal for legislators to obstruct this well-defined FDA process,” according to Pang’s statement.

Pang stressed that he himself had never prescribed ivermectin or other off-label drugs to treat COVID-19 and that he didn’t believe that using the drugs for “early treatment” is a realistic alternative to vaccination. He also reaffirmed his avid support for vaccinating people against COVID-19.

Still, he said restricting doctors use of the drugs to treat COVID-19 would be detrimental to the medical profession.

“Dr. Pang says that for the record, he cannot currently endorse hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin as effective treatments for COVID-­19, but doctors are looking, including off label, using safe doses,” according to Pang’s statement. “Suppressing or silencing this FDA approved approach and the experts who contribute, is restrictive to society’s scientific progress. Moreover, when it relates to medical science and public health, it is potentially dangerous.”

However, the FDA has a dedicated webpage to “why you should not use ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-­19.” The agency has also warned against using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the American Medical Association, American Pharmacists Association and American Society of Health-System Pharmacists put out a joint statement “calling for an immediate end to the prescribing, dispensing, and use of ivermectin for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 outside of a clinical trial.”

The drug is commonly used as an animal dewormer, but has also been used to treat parasites in humans. There have been mounting concerns nationally about a minority of doctors who have been prescribing the drug, as well as people turning to livestock stores to obtain ivermectin that is intended to be used in animals.

Nationally, prescriptions for ivermectin have soared from about 3,600 a week prior to the pandemic to more than 88,000 per week as of mid-August, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sen. Roz Baker (D-West Maui-South Maui) who called on Pang to be fired during remarks on the Senate floor last week said she wasn’t suprisied that Pang was “lashing out.”

“But I’m not going to get in a tit for tat with him,” she said by email. “I stand by my statements and I did do my due diligence prior to my remarks on the floor of the Senate.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki, who also called on Gov. David Ige and the Department of Health to fire Pang, reiterated that the governor should take action.

“The governor needs to decide whether he wants a district health officer who gives messages that contravene the CDC and other leading medical experts,” said Saiki. “And he needs to make a quick decision.”

Pang is a civil service employee, so he can’t easily be terminated. But government employers have other options, such as putting someone on administrative leave or reassigning them.

While Pang’s statement addressed his prior comments to the press about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, it left out any mention of the Pono Coalition for Informed Consent, which he co-founded recently and appears to have now disassociated from.

Pang said that his involvement with the group was as a private citizen and that he didn’t agree with all the views of its members. He said he had joined the group to promote dialogue between differing viewpoints and that he represented the side of medical science.

However, the group’s members have pushed conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines on social media and in public testimony before the University of Hawaii Board of Regents relating to vaccine requirements for students.

Lawmakers said that his involvement with the group was a problem in itself, potentially lending credence to dangerous misinformation about vaccine safety.

New cases

Meanwhile, Hawaii Department of Health officials on Wednesday reported 13 new coronavirus-related deaths and 455 new confirmed and probable infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 602 fatalities and 63,957 cases.

The latest deaths included nine Oahu residents and four Maui residents, state health officials said in an email.

One Oahu woman was in her 70s and eight Oahu men ranging between the ages of 30 and over 80 years old, all had underlying health conditions. Eight of the Oahu residents all died in the hospital except for one Oahu man who died in a care facility, state health officials said.

On Maui, one woman over the age of 80 died at home with underlying health conditions while three other men between the ages of 50 and 79 years old with underlying health conditions died in the hospital, state health officials said.

The 455 new COVID-19 cases reported today comprise of a partial count due to an electronic laboratory reporting system interruption on Monday, according to Brooks Baehr, administrative assistant at the Health Department’s COVID-19 and Pandemic Response.

“The Department of Health anticipates cases not yet reported will be included in case counts over the next 24 to 48 hours,” Baehr said.

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