As COVID surges on, Iowa Republicans advance bills to make it easier to use ivermectin and harder to vaccinate kids

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The number of new cases of COVID-19 reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health declined from the record-setting 38,574 new cases in last week’s IDPH weekly update, but was still the second-highest weekly total IDPH has reported during the pandemic.

According to the department, another 34,949 Iowans tested positive for the virus since its last update on Jan. 19.

In this week’s update, IDPH reported 929 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, a decline from the 991 patients in the previous update. It was the first time since Dec. 29 the number of hospitalized patients declined in a weekly update, but this week’s total is still higher than any weekly total since the surge of 2020.

IDPH disclosed another 184 deaths in Wednesday’s update, bringing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 8,501.

Iowa has a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 60.2 percent, ranking 26th among U.S. states. Nationally, 63.7 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

While the COVID-19 surge that began last fall continues, Republican lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature advanced two bills related to the pandemic this week. One would make it easier for Iowans to be treated with ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug most commonly used as a horse dewormer. Anti-vaccination activists have fixated on ivermectin — in both its human and animal formulations — as a COVID-19 treatment, despite it being ineffective against the virus and potentially toxic to humans, according to the CDC. The other bill would make it more difficult to vaccinate children, not just against COVID-19, but against any disease.

An Iowa House subcommittee voted 2-1 on Tuesday to send HF 2010 to the Committee on Human Resources. The bill would expand the state’s “right to try” law that allows terminally ill patients to receive medicines that have passed the first stage of FDA clinical trials if other treatments have failed or been rejected. HF 2010 would extend the current law to also cover people on ventilators, even if their condition is not considered terminal, and expand the sort of treatments covered to include “the off-label use of a drug.”

Rep. Lee Hein, a Republican from Monticello and one of the bill’s sponsors, explained to the subcommittee that HF 2010 was inspired by the experience of a family in his district who wanted their loved one, hospitalized with COVID-19 and on a ventilator, to be treated with ivermectin, despite the drug not being approved for that use.

“I had conversations with Rep. Meyer [the Republican chair of the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the bill], and this was what we thought — at least it would give the family some hope,” Hein said. “I don’t know whether any of these drugs work.”

Although it is a popular veterinary medicine, the FDA only approves of the use ivermectin in humans in small doses to treat some infestations of parasitic worms and, applied topically, as treatment for head lice.

The only Democrat on the subcommittee, Iowa City Rep. Mary Mascher, voted against the bill.

“There’s a lot of folks in the room who are medical folks,” Mascher said during Tuesday’s hearing. “And I have heard no one in support of the bill.”

Mascher said not enough information about the impact of changing current law had been presented.

A more focused pro-ivermectin bill has been introduced in the Iowa Senate. Sen. Jim Carlin, a Republican from Woodbury County who is running against Chuck Grassley for his party’s 2022 U.S. Senate nomination, is sponsoring SF 2031, which would prevent any doctor prescribing ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine – an ineffective COVID-19 treatment championed by former President Trump – from facing disciplinary action affecting their medical license.

SF 2031 is still awaiting a subcommittee hearing, but another bill sponsored by Carlin passed out of subcommittee on Tuesday.

SF 2028 would require “prior written consent” from a child’s parent or legal guardian before the child can receive any vaccination. Currently law allows parents or guardians to give verbal consent to a healthcare provider.

Iowa Public Radio reports that IDPH warned the bill could lead to delays in vaccinations and children could fall behind in their routinely scheduled vaccinations, since the bill applies to any vaccination, not just ones for COVID-19. The Iowa Public Health Association also opposed the bill.

“Verbal consent allows for parents to have those important conversations with their providers or child’s providers about any questions they have about the vaccinations that their children are about to be given,” Lina Tucker Reinders, the group’s executive director, told the subcommittee. “Requiring written consent would impede upon these conversations.”

Both Republicans on the subcommittee voted for the bill, and the lone Democrat opposed it.

According to lobbyist declarations, SF 2028 is supported by The Family Leader, a fundamentalist Christian political organization, and Informed Choice Iowa, a group founded in 2017 to oppose all vaccine requirements and other mandatory health measures.

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