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OPINION: Jail Covid Med Stirs Debate

September 1, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

You know something interesting has happened when a lot of people start to care about what happens to jail inmates.

If we're really being honest, inmates are often only the concern of their families and the jailers who are charged with keeping them locked up and, if everything is done correctly, safe. Even folks who rationally recognize the "innocent until proven guilty" principle of our judicial system can be dismissive of the jail crowd on the not-always-solid theory that they wouldn't be in jail if they hadn't done something wrong.

Make inmates part of the political debate over covid-19 public policy and suddenly people care, at least insofar as it helps confirm whatever preconceived notions they have about society's response to the coronavirus.

The news broke last week in Washington County, when Sheriff Tim Helder acknowledged in a public meeting the medical provider for the jail, Karas Correctional Health, had been giving inmates the drug Ivermectin to treat them for the covid-19 virus and its effects.

The revelation was made even more sensational through confusion about recent developments involving the drug. There's a form of Ivermectin veterinarians use to fight parasites in livestock. It's not intended for human use, but some misguided folks have self-medicated with it in an effort to treat their covid-19. The Arkansas Poison Control Center has received almost four times as many calls this year, compared to 2020, from people suffering from use of veterinary-grade Ivermectin.

That's not what Karas Correctional Health was using at the jail. Rather, Dr. Rob Karas used a form of the drug designed for humans. It has been used for several years in humans, but federal medical authorities have not approved its use as a covid-19 treatment.

Last week's revelation nonetheless shocked people, no doubt exacerbated by the use of a drug for "off-label" purposes in a population of people locked up and with limited choices when it comes to their health care.

Eva Madison, a Washington County justice of the peace, said the use of Ivermectin among jail inmates was unsettling.

"I think we need to reevaluate who we are using to provide medical care if they are disregarding FDA guidelines and giving dewormer to detainees at our county jail," Madison said. "It's very disturbing to me that that's the level of care we're providing."

Karas, now the subject of an investigation by the Arkansas State Medical Board, posted a video on YouTube last week in which he cast his actions in terms of the American World War II invasion on D-Day.

"My thoughts are do you want us to try and fight like we're at the beaches of Normandy or do you want me to tell, like a lot of people do, say 'Go home and ride it out and go to the ER when your lips turn blue'?" he said.

He said the mortality rate among his patients -- in jail and in his medical clinics -- was about eight times better than the national and state mortality rates.

"We're trying to do everything we can that we believe is safe for the patient, and there's a greater risk of dying from covid than there is the medication," he said in the video.

It's fair to say Ivermectin's use for covid-19 isn't settled. But it's not proven, at least not in the way the medical authorities typically demand. It's intriguing, then, how some supporting Ivermectin -- I'm not talking about Karas here -- will not trust the federally approved vaccines proven as safe and highly effective barriers against covid-19 infections.

Whether one believes Karas is a good guy or bad guy in all this, as with so many other topics these days, probably depends on one's preconceived views on masks, the vaccines and, to some degree, politics.

-- Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Print Headline: Jail Covid Med Stirs Debate

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