SEATTLE — Washington congressional candidate Loren Culp is promoting unproven treatments for COVID-19, advising supporters to send a few hundred dollars to a Florida telemedicine clinic that dispenses drugs medical researchers say are ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Culp, a Republican endorsed by Donald Trump in his effort to unseat U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, says he knows several people who have recently gotten sick with COVID and been hospitalized, including a few who died.
“I want to make sure you and your family have everything available to combat this virus if you or someone you love gets it,” Culp wrote in a Feb. 9 email to supporters, with the subject line, “A Personal Message about the Chinese Virus.”
Culp said he recently paid the Florida clinic for drugs including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Most doctors won’t prescribe them, he wrote, because of “lies coming from Big Pharma, the US Government, the media, and of course Dr. Fauci.”
In reality, most doctors do not prescribe those drugs because — despite being hyped by vaccine skeptics — they have not proven effective in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 and may harm patients, according to medical experts and federal and state public health authorities.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of hospitals or clinical trials, citing side effects including “serious heart rhythm problems that can be life-threatening.”
In September, the American Medical Association joined two national pharmacist groups in opposition to prescribing or dispensing ivermectin for COVID-19, responding to a five-fold surge in calls to poison control centers from people who ingested the drug. Some were taking concentrated dosages meant for de-worming horses.
In his email to supporters, Culp said he paid the clinic $110 for an online appointment with a doctor and another $155 for the prescriptions to be mailed from a pharmacy. “Easy,” he wrote.
He advertised the clinic again Thursday in a message to his more than 16,000 followers on GETTR, the conservative social media platform founded by a Trump adviser as an alternative to Twitter.
Dr. Christine Johnston, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, “has been studied now in several well-done studies that have shown no benefits for using it” to treat or prevent COVID-19.
A large 2020 clinical trial co-led by Johnston found people who received hydroxychloroquine were no less likely to become infected than those who received placebos. It also found no evidence that people who got hydroxychloroquine were less likely to develop symptoms when infected.
Similarly, several studies of ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections in humans and animals, have failed to show effectiveness in COVID-19 patients. The latest study, published Friday by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, found ivermectin had no impact on reducing hospitalizations, the need for placing people on ventilators or death among COVID-19 patients.
Several studies are still ongoing into ivermectin, which could conceivably produce different results, Johnston noted.
UW Medicine clinical pharmacist Rupali Jain said while it’s not illegal for doctors to prescribe ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, which are authorized for treating some diseases, relying on them to treat COVID-19 is unwise.
“It’s not going to help your COVID and it’s going to potentially be harmful. And it delays therapies that we do know work,” said Jain, who helps lead the UW’s COVID-19 therapeutics team.
In addition to the three approved COVID-19 vaccines, which have been shown to be effective in reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Jain pointed to newer anti-viral pills and monoclonal antibody treatments that have been shown effective in treating the disease, but need to be taken soon after infection.
Jain and Johnston spoke about the science regarding the treatments and were not commenting specifically on Culp’s messages.
Culp, the former small-town police chief who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2020, declined interview requests. He declared his candidacy in Washington’s 4th Congressional District after Newhouse voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — one of just 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats in the vote.
Culp’s email didn’t specify who he knows who had recently been sickened by COVID-19. On Facebook he recently mourned former Washington state trooper Robert LaMay, who was lionized by conservatives last fall after deciding to quit his job rather than comply with the state’s vaccine mandate. LaMay, 50, died in late January after being hospitalized with COVID-19.
While Culp’s messages to supporters did not mention vaccines, his campaign says he is not against vaccination.
“To be clear, Mr. Culp is not anti-vaccine and he’s never made a public statement that he is anti-vaccine. To be precise, what Mr. Culp has repeatedly stated is that he is anti-mandate. If individuals feel compelled to take the vaccine, he encourages them to do so. In fact, many of Mr. Culp’s supporters are 100 percent vaccinated,” a campaign spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“However, should a citizen do their own research, speak to their doctor and conclude that taking the vaccine is not for them, the government should not and does not have the authority to force them to engage in a medical procedure,” the statement added.
Little information is available about the clinic promoted by Culp. Its website features stock photos of smiling doctors in front of an American flag. The site does not identify any doctors affiliated with it, but says it was founded last year “by three U.S. Army combat veteran health care providers to serve the American people they swore an oath to protect.”
Erin Olszewski, a nurse from Tampa, Florida, who has spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories and railed against vaccines and the medical establishment, has identified herself as among the clinic’s founders, saying another one will be opening in Texas.
The clinic did not respond to questions about its owners and practices.
Kolina Koltai, a UW researcher who has studied vaccine misinformation since 2015, said the allure of rogue doctors dispensing alternative cures has been around long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There has been this secret network of physicians within the anti-vax space who will give you what you want,” she said. With the increased use of telemedicine, they can more easily reach a national base of vaccine-skeptical customers, she noted.
Nationally and in Washington, some doctors and other medical professionals have run afoul of medical licensing boards for prescribing such unproven treatments.
Since 2020, the Washington Medical Commission has received 49 complaints against 22 doctors and physician assistants alleging inappropriate prescribing of ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine or other non-FDA-approved medications to treat patients with COVID-19, according to Stephanie Mason, a spokesperson for the commission.
Most of those complaints are still under investigation. Two have resulted in misconduct charges.
Last October, the commission suspended the license of a Washougal physician assistant, Scott C. Miller, who prescribed ivermectin to unvaccinated people, including at least two who died of COVID-19, according to a commission investigation.
Miller also harassed hospital staff and wrote prescriptions without examining patients. He prescribed one severely ill man nine ivermectin tablets a day, falsely claiming the prescription was for head lice, according to the commission’s statement of charges. The man, who had rejected a hospital’s medical advice in favor of ivermectin, died eight days later.
In January, the medical commission charged a Yakima doctor with unprofessional conduct for prescribing ivermectin to a 77-year-old unvaccinated woman with serious heart and kidney problems who had tested positive for COVID-19 after her primary-care doctor had refused to authorize the drug.
The Yakima doctor didn’t examine the woman before prescribing ivermectin, and she was hospitalized with gastrointestinal bleeding caused by an interaction between ivermectin and another drug she was taking, according to the commission’s statement of charges. His case is pending.
Fully vaccinated Americans are 14 times less likely to die of COVID-19 than those who have not received shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month. Boosted Americans were 97 times less likely to die.
More than 928,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, according to government data, including more than 11,500 in Washington.
At least 163,000 of those deaths nationally could have been prevented with vaccines between last June and November, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“The misinformation has actually killed people in the pandemic. They haven’t accessed the treatment they need. They haven’t accessed the vaccines that we know are effective,” said Johnston.