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Doctor sees success in using hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 as heart risk concerns mount

A Central Ohio doctor is seeing success in using hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 as heart risk concerns mount. Watch Tara Morgan's special report Thursday, April 30, 2020 on ABC 6 News at 11. (Courtesy: Damea Alexander)
A Central Ohio doctor is seeing success in using hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 as heart risk concerns mount. Watch Tara Morgan's special report Thursday, April 30, 2020 on ABC 6 News at 11. (Courtesy: Damea Alexander)
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The anti-malaria medication, hydroxychloroquine, is under the microscope in a clinical trial after making national headlines.

Last week, the FDA warned against using the drug outside a hospital setting or clinical trial citing heart risk concerns.

The drug has been widely touted by President Donald Trump as a coronavirus game changer.

It has not been a proven medication to treat COVID-19 and one VA hospital study found there’s no benefit and more deaths in using the drug among veterans hospitalized with the disease.

Damea Alexander decided to give hydroxychloroquine a try after he got sick last month.

“I didn’t think this was the regular flu that goes around,” said Alexander.

It was March 17 when Alexander, a husband and father of four, started to not feel well.

He said he had mild symptoms at first that progressively got worse.

“The night sweats were just horrible. I could just feel water dripping off of me like nothing I ever had before,” said Alexander.

Alexander has mild asthma and he struggled under COVID-19’s grip to catch his breath even when walking through his house.

“It really affected my lungs. I had some pretty severe asthma attacks during this,” said Alexander.

His doctor is Plain City family physician, Steven Tornik.

Dr. Tornik treated ten COVID-19 patients in this pandemic, mostly medical professionals.

“We’ve had some in their late 20’s, 30’s to some elderly patients,” said Dr. Tornik.

Dr. Tornik prescribed hydroxychloroquine combined with azithromycin to half of those patients.

“Some we treated at 48 hours, some we treated at two weeks,” said Dr. Tornik.

He said the results surprised him.

“About 70 percent to 80 percent improvement in 24 hours and then gradual improvement over the next few days,” said Dr. Tornik.

Alexander was his first patient to try it after a long conversation.

“I wanted to give it a shot number one because we had nothing else we could do and he was not doing well so he wanted in a way to be a guinea pig,” said Dr. Tornik.

6 On Your Side asked Alexander if he was nervous.

“Definitely, yeah, I mean whenever you try a new medication whenever you take a new medication we all know that medications come with risks but they also come with benefits as well,” said Alexander.

Alexander’s confidence comes from his 25 years as a nurse.

Right now, he does clinical research on drugs and their effects.

He had been reading up on hydroxychloroquine before he got sick.

“That definitely helped. It may have given me an edge on the layperson that might not have that background but even if I didn’t, I trusted my doctor,” said Alexander.

Alexander has no idea where he contracted the deadly virus.

“Four weeks prior to that I was in six states and on 12 flights,” said Alexander.

His COVID-19 test came back positive March 22, five days after showing symptoms.

“It wasn’t resolving, it felt like things were getting worse.

The next day, he began his 5-day course of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.

“It’s on an individual basis but if they didn’t have any issues or anything that was contraindicated to taking those medications yeah I would definitely recommend it,” said Alexander.

The FDA issued a warning last week against using hydroxychloroquine without strict supervision in a hospital or clinical trial citing a risk for heart rhythm problems.

Dr. Anish Amin specializes in heart rhythm disorders at OhioHealth.

“Drugs like hydroxychloroquine interfere with the heart’s ability to recharge after each heartbeat; this is of particular consequence in patients who are susceptible to having arrhythmias already or we put them in situations that make them more susceptible,” said Dr. Amin, OhioHealth Cardiac Electrophysiologist.

Dr. Amin said everyday antibiotics or anti-nausea medications can increase the risk for some patients.

“I would say in a hospital setting at least at OhioHealth we’ve taken a stance alongside our infectious disease experts to limit the use of hydroxychloroquine or other agents that fall into this category with the exception of those patients participating in a clinical trial,” said Dr. Amin.

Dr. Tornik said it’s hard to tell what his limited experience with five patients means, other than it being positive. But said under a physician’s supervision, it may be appropriate.

“I obviously don’t treat hospitalized patients. I don’t treat patients on a ventilator so I have no idea what would happen with those patients and patients with significant cardiac issues, arrhythmias and whatnot might not be appropriate. I don’t know you have to look at an individual case,” said Dr. Tornik.

Alexander says his children and wife stayed healthy throughout his isolation and recovery.

“I’m feeling pretty good actually,” said Alexander.

He’s now back at work.

“I was nervous about how people would feel being around me. I was a little nervous about maybe I could contract it again,” said Alexander.

His decision on treatment would be the same.

“Without a doubt, yeah,” said Alexander.

Dr. Amin said patients who aren’t in a hospital setting or clinical trial should review their existing drug list and pre-existing cardiovascular conditions with their doctor.

A U.S. Veterans hospital study of 368 veterans nationwide found more deaths in those treated with hydroxychloroquine and no evidence that using the drug with or without azithromycin reduced the risk of the need for a ventilator in those hospitalized.

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A National Institutes of Health clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine has begun in Tennessee on its safety and effectiveness.

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