Harris, a Doctor, Touts Use of Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19

Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R) addresses the crowd at a ReOpen Maryland rally this spring. Facebook photo.

U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, a physician and Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress, is backing President Trump’s support for unproven treatments for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Harris says the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine could be used as a preventive measure, despite warnings about its use outside of hospitals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The “jury’s still out” about its effectiveness, and “it is not a dangerous drug” as evidenced by its wide use for prevention of malaria, Harris said at a recent town hall meeting.

Marylanders “should be able to go to the drugstore and get hydroxychloroquine” if a physician prescribes it, he said. “That’s the way it should be in America,” he added.

Trump, who’s been touting the treatment for months, again said earlier this month that it’s safe. But Admiral Brett Giroir, the administration leader on testing, said the same day that “the evidence just doesn’t show” it’s effective right now. In Maryland, GOP Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. issued an executive order in April banning the state’s pharmacies from dispensing hydroxychloroquine and two other drugs to treat undiagnosed COVID-19.

In June, the FDA revoked emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and in July cited safety concerns including serious heart rhythm problems, blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries and liver problems and failure.

Evidence does not support the use of hydroxychloroquine, said Joshua Sharfstein, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University and a former Maryland state health secretary. Some politicians and physicians “have been resistant to that.”

However, some states have been changing course. In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz earlier this month lifted some restrictions on the drug, saying there’s not been any demand for it to treat COVID-19. The Ohio Board of Pharmacy in late July reversed a decision to levy a ban, following a statement by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine asking for a review of evidence and comments.

Harris, a five-term lawmaker who was under consideration to head the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health in 2016, is one of more than a dozen physicians in the House, and he’s pointed to his medical background as an asset. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

Harris is also co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus, which released a video in March publicizing basic health guidelines about COVID-19 but has been largely silent on health matters such as in-person learning in schools and alternative therapies like hydroxychloroquine. The group’s webpage doesn’t include information other than membership and its Twitter account has been idle since 2016. A spokesperson for the caucus’ co-chairman, Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe, did not respond to a request for comment.

Bloomberg Government news reported earlier this month that the Republican physicians plan to use their medical backgrounds to “promote a coronavirus vaccine while opposing efforts to expand public insurance programs.” Harris told the publication that “people understand that the physicians in Congress, they know what’s going on, and would be best to gauge the safety” of vaccines.

During his Aug. 3 town meeting, Harris pointed to “Operation Warp Speed” — a Trump administration effort to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine by January 2021.

“We will lead the world in developing the treatments and I believe in developing the vaccine,” he said.

‘No reason’ to keep schools closed

Aside from medical treatments, Harris is also embracing the president’s insistence that schools open for in-person learning this fall, even as many across the nation start the academic year with remote learning.

“There is no reason not to open schools for the children,” Harris said during the virtual town hall meeting earlier this month — echoing similar comments he has made in recent weeks on Twitter, in news outlets and in a press conference on Capitol Hill.

Harris has also signed on to a resolution declaring that local officials should make decisions about how and whether to reopen schools rather than the federal government. No other Maryland lawmakers have signed the resolution.

Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatened earlier this summer to deny federal funding to schools that don’t resume full-time, in-person education this fall — a move widely seen as necessary to boost the economy ahead of the elections.

They have since backpedaled that threat but have continued to push for in-person learning — though schools and universities offering it have since reported outbreaks. In July, Trump said he wants schools to reopen “100 percent” and said he would like to earmark $35 billion in a coronavirus relief package for schools that reopen in person. The bill has stalled in Congress.

Harris strongly backs in-person learning. “I like to think of schools as essential services during a pandemic,” he said in his Aug. 3 call with constituents. “And if we’re asking our grocery clerk to see hundreds of people a day passing by that checkout lane … why can’t a school teacher be asked to take appropriate precautions and be in a classroom?”

Opposition to in-person learning, he said, is driven by teachers’ unions.

COVID-19 in Maryland

Maryland has seen more than 106,000 cases of COVID-19, and the number of cases continues to climb, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Some experts fear a surge of infections next month as tourists flock to the state’s beaches over the holiday weekend.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says school districts should make decisions based on conditions in their local communities and says the benefits of in-person learning should be weighed against the risk of virus spread. It also calls virtual learning the safest option for education amid the pandemic. Schools in all Maryland counties are following that guidance, with plans to open virtually in the coming weeks to minimize transmission and protect the health and safety of students, teachers and staff.

The state’s two largest school districts, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, currently plan to keep their buildings shuttered through January.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement with major education organizations earlier this summer calling on schools to reopen in a way that is “safe for all students, teachers and staff” and that is grounded in science.

Kathleen Sebelius, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama, said mandatory, in-person education right now is “insane and dangerous” in a call with reporters Wednesday. “Children do not go to school in a bubble,” she said, noting that students who attend school in person can bring the virus home to their families and spread it in their communities. Many schools also lack the resources they need to reopen safely, she added.

Harris and other preventive therapies

In addition to hydroxychloroquine, Harris has also touted other therapies like convalescent plasma, which Trump earlier this week falsely claimed reduces mortality rates by 35%, according to FactCheck.org.

“We have new therapies… basically coming out every week that are going to make this a much less dangerous disease for the people who get it,” Harris said.

The FDA has issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma but hasn’t approved any drugs or therapies to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Mia Mason, the Democrat running against Harris in this fall’s elections, said she’s “baffled” by Harris’ comments about health issues related to the pandemic. “He disagrees with science when he was taught science,” she said in an interview with States Newsroom.

Mason said Harris isn’t taking reopening schools and the economy seriously and will pay for it at the ballot box in November.

David Karol, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, disagreed, saying Harris’ comments won’t cause him any “political trouble.” Voters in the conservative 1st District “didn’t elect him to be their physician,” he said. “They elected him to be their representative.”

Trump carried the district by nearly 30 points in 2016, and Republican presidential candidates won it by wide margins in 2012 and 2008. Harris, meanwhile, has cruised to victory since he was first elected in 2010, and won with 60% of the vote in 2018. Political observers see him as a safe bet for reelection this fall.

Mason, a military veteran and civil rights advocate, is “fairly obscure,” Karol said, while Harris is “pretty well entrenched.”

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