Florida's DeSantis orders 1 million doses of controversial anti-malaria drug before nearing coronavirus peak

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One million doses of hydroxychloroquine are expected to arrive in Tallahassee, Fla. by Wednesday as the state anticipates reaching its peak in coronavirus infections weeks sooner than initially projected.

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Florida is expected to reach its peak of coronavirus infections on April 21, when about 242 people in the state could be dying per day, according to revised projections from the University of Washington’s School of Medicine released Monday.

The university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been used by the White House coronavirus task force to form its coronavirus response, initially predicted the outbreak in Florida to peak about two weeks later, on May 3, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Shipments of the drug originally developed to prevent and treat malaria will arrive at select Florida hospitals mostly in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, and Hillsborough counties, according to Florida’s emergency management office.

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Patients wait to be seen at a medical testing site, set up amid the virus outbreak at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. 

Patients wait to be seen at a medical testing site, set up amid the virus outbreak at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pembroke Pines, Fla.  (AP)

“This is something that a physician recommends under supervision,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a video conference with a doctor from Broward County who has used the drug to treat COVID-19 patients, according to WPEC in West Palm Beach.

Amneal Pharmaceuticals was sending a massive shipment of hydroxychloroquine to Florida. Teva Pharmaceuticals is also shipping hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, an antibiotic commonly known as a Z-Pak, to Florida from India, WPTV in West Palm Beach reported. India initially blocked its export last week.  Both drugs combined have been used to treat COVID-19 patients in the state.

"I think we need to have every option that's available for these patients," Dr. Sunil Kumar with Broward Health said at the press conference. "Some of these patients are very, very sick."

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DeSantis said Florida has tested nearly 140,000 people for COVID-19 with the help of the state National Guard, Department of Health and Division of Emergency Management.

Florida had the eighth highest number of infections in the country, and the tenth highest number of fatalities by Wednesday morning, recording at least 14,747 confirmed cases, with at least 296 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As the debate over the efficacy of using an anti-malaria drug to treat COVID-19 patients continues, DeSantis is taking precautions to ensure a sudden surge in coronavirus cases doesn’t cause shortages in medical supplies and overwhelm hospital staff.

President Trump has been building the federal stockpile of hydroxychloroquine despite medical experts warning against using the drug to treat COVID-19 patients without further research.

In a White House press briefing Sunday, Trump once again threw his support behind treating COVID-19 patients with the drug while recognizing further studies would need to be done before doctors could confirm its safety and effectiveness.

He acknowledged remarks made by Dr. Patrice Harris, the president of the American Medical Association, who has stressed hydroxychloroquine’s high risk of causing heart rhythm problems. She said she personally would not prescribe the drug to COVID-19 patients because the risks of severe side effects were “great and too significant to downplay.”

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Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration authorized pulling hydroxychloroquine from the federal stockpile of medical supplies to treat members of the general public last week. The Department of Health and Human Services also cleared hydroxychloroquine and two similar drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, for “compassionate use” on extremely ill COVID-19 patients who have exhausted other treatment methods.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also questioned the drug’s efficacy in treating COVID-19 patients. He had warned against overbuying the medication amid the coronavirus pandemic to prevent shortages for patients who rely on the drug to treat the symptoms of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

On Saturday, he reportedly clashed with White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, who has been working to source the drug from around the world as well as ramp up domestic production capabilities within the U.S., Axios first reported. During the heated exchange, Fauci reportedly claimed there was only “anecdotal evidence” that shows the drug is effective in treating coronavirus patients. Studies in France and South Korea have been questioned because they did not include control groups.

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DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1 after balking at the idea for weeks, initially deferring the decision to close all non-essential business to local authorities.

Two days earlier, he had issued a “safer at home” order for four counties – Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe – in South Florida, the hot spot of the outbreak in the state. By then, the governor had ordered a two-week halt on all vacation rentals, as well as implemented highway checkpoints and sent the National Guard to major airports to order travelers from Louisiana and the New York City area to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Florida or risk spending 60 days in jail.