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SANTA FE – Acting Health Secretary David Scrase bluntly warned New Mexicans on Wednesday to avoid taking ivermectin – an anti-parasite drug sold at veterinary supply stores – as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
One individual in New Mexico may have died of an ivermectin overdose, he said, and another patient is in intensive care, possibly as a result of taking the drug.
In a public briefing, Scrase said that the ivermectin reports haven’t been verified by his agency and that the state is waiting for a death certificate and other documents.
But he said he couldn’t delay in issuing a warning about the drug, which isn’t approved as a treatment for COVID-19.
“I don’t want more people to die of an ivermectin overdose in the next four weeks while we’re gathering data,” Scrase said. “I’d like people to know, if they’re out there taking it, it can kill them.”
The individual who died, he said, is believed to have obtained ivermectin from a veterinary supply store. The dose used for a large animal, he said, wouldn’t be appropriate for a person.
Scrase, a physician who leads the state departments of health and human services, said the report he shared came from a health care colleague in New Mexico.
“There’s a cult following for this drug,” Scrase said, but New Mexico health officials don’t believe it’s effective against COVID-19.
Ivermectin can be prescribed for humans to treat intestinal worms, river blindness and certain other conditions.
It’s generally used to kill parasites in humans and animals.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has urged people not to take the drug for COVID-19. More testing is needed, the agency said, before it can be determined whether it can be used to treat the disease.
“You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” the FDA said in a recent tweet.
Some Republican lawmakers have promoted ivermectin as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican who represents southern New Mexico, has accused Democrats of politicizing the drug.
“Despite clear studies showing possible applications of Ivermectin in helping against COVID, Joe Biden’s party would rather politicize medicine,” she said in a recent tweet, linking to a study. “Don’t take horse dewormer. Do encourage research/tests with Ivermectin by doctors. It’s that simple.”
Scrase said other treatments are proving effective against COVID-19. The use of remdesivir and monoclonal antibodies, for example, are playing a role in limiting hospitalizations, he said, as New Mexico reels from a late-summer surge in coronavirus cases, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.
Still, the state’s hospitals remain full, Scrase said. Hospitals are on the brink of invoking crisis standards of care, he said, but they haven’t had to ration care.
COVID-19 isn’t the only factor contributing to New Mexico’s hospital crowding. The state has faced a nursing shortage and has fewer hospital beds per capita than the national average.
Health care providers say they also are seeing more patients seeking care for conditions that worsened when they didn’t seek routine care during the pandemic.
The state Department of Health said 394 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, a 1.5% increase over the previous day.
“I’ll still be sitting on the edge of my seat until the end of September,” Scrase said of the full hospitals.
New Mexico is seeing hopeful signs elsewhere, health officials said. Coronavirus isn’t spreading as quickly, and the number of new cases appears to have reached a plateau.
“I certainly don’t want to celebrate too early, but I’m happy to see this semblance of a plateau,” said Dr. Christine Ross, a physician and the state epidemiologist.
New Mexico reported 543 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 15 additional deaths. The state’s official coronavirus-related death toll is now 4,577.
Over the past four weeks, people who aren’t fully vaccinated have made up 82% of new cases, 90% of hospitalizations and 92% of deaths.
“The driving force in the surge of cases we’re seeing in New Mexico is among, unfortunately, unvaccinated individuals,” Ross said.
Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón, a physician, said improving vaccination rates in southeastern New Mexico have helped limit new cases.
About 68.4% of adults in New Mexico have completed their full vaccine series, although vaccine rates are up to 20 percentage points lower in southeastern counties.