Infectious disease specialist Joseph Masci is Director of Global Health at Emhurst Hospital in Queens, the frontline of New York’s coronavirus epidemic. Queens has more than twice the cases and twice the rate of cases as New York’s densest borough, Manhattan.
Masci told The Lancet medical journal Saturday that patients with COVID-19 at Elmhurst have not experienced adverse effects from hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug heavily promoted by President Donald Trump.
“I think it was resorted to more out of a sense of desperation,” said Masci. “It is just an indication of how sudden and massive this outbreak has been.”
“We are seeing a very rapid rise in patients with [COVID-19], a condition that never existed before and has its own issues in terms of treatment, prevention, and transmission”, he said. “It has been a very, very challenging problem and we don’t think it has hit the peak yet.”
Elmhurst has 545 beds and is one of 11 hospitals in a network of public hospitals in New York run by the Health and Hospitals Corporation. Masci said hydroxychloroquine has been administered to many patients with COVID-19 throughout the system, including several hundred at Elmhurst. The course of treatment runs 5 days and doctors have observed mixed results.
The hospital serves a largely working-class immigrant population and is currently operating at more than 100% capacity. Emergency Physician Rishi Khakhkhar called it the “epicenter within the epicenter” of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City in an article for the Harvard Business Review last Tuesday. It is so overwhelmed by new patients that beds in tents have been set up in the parking lot.
City Council staffer Charles Vavruska, 53, told the New York Post Saturday hydroxychloroquine was like a miracle cure when he was hooked up to an oxygen tank and fighting for his life at the New York Presbyterian-Queens hospital.
He visited urgent care in mid-March with flu-like symptoms and grew progressively worse. He was barely able to breathe when he was showed up at hospital weeks later. He tested positive for COVID-19 and doctors started him on a drug cocktail of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin.
Vavruska said he felt almost immediately better and wishes the urgent-care doctor he went to see in the early days of his illness could have prescribed a similar treatment before he nearly lost his life.
A total of 9,385 people have died from coronavirus in the state of New York. “The change in total number of hospitalizations is down again,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday.
“This is the number that we have been watching because the great fear for us was always overwhelming the hospital system,” he said noting that 18,700 people are hospitalized with the virus.
Under the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine can be used only in a hospital setting to treat COVID-19 in adults and adolescents who weigh at least 50 kg and are not able to participate in a clinical trial.
The drugs must also be obtained from the national stockpile to protect the supply for other patients who have relied on the drugs for years to control autoimmune diseases including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Three days after the EUA, a surge in demand forced the agency to declare a shortage of both drugs.