The pills that Stephanie received in the mail were labeled hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. (Photo by Meredith Rizzo, NPR)
NPR tells the cautionary story of a woman who got Covid-19 and died from it after refusing medical care while she waited on an unproven treatment to arrive by mail.
The story is about Stephanie, a 75-year-old woman who caught Covid-19 just before Thanksgiving last year and despite encouragement from her daughter to seek medical care decided to purchase ivermectin via mail-order from a Florida woman who was not a doctor. Stephanie’s condition worsened as she waited on the drugs to arrive, causing her to be hospitalized, and she died a few days after Christmas.
NPR says it only used family members’ first names to protect them from online harassment. It did not specify the location but indicated it was in New York state.
“For Americans like Stephanie who don’t trust the medical establishment, there’s a network of fringe medical doctors, natural healers and internet personalities ready to push unproven cures for Covid,” Geoff Brumfiel reports for NPR. “And a shady black market where you can buy them. Stephanie was plugged into that alternative medical network, and doctors say it ultimately cost her life.”
Doctors who treated Stephanie at the hospital told NPR they believe she wasted critical days waiting for the mail-order drugs. Jai Ballani, a Northwell Health physician who treated Stephanie at the hospital, told Brumfiel that her best chance would have been to be vaccinated before she got sick, but even without vaccination, she would have fared better if she had sought scientifically tested therapies.
“There might have been a chance that this story might have had a different outcome,” Ballani said.
Laurie, her daughter, told NPR in a story broadcast in April that in the years leading up to her mother’s death, she had become embroiled in far-fetched conspiracy theories and that these beliefs caused her to avoid vaccination and led her to not seek the most effective treatments after she got sick.
NPR notes that there are an array of alternative Covid treatments being offered, like kosher multivitamins or advice to drink your own urine, but the one that has become most popular — especially in politically conservative circles — is ivermectin, a drug that was originally used to treat parasitic worms.
The reason for ivermectin’s popularity is, in part, “because of a small cadre of licensed doctors who promote it as an alternative to vaccination against Covid,” Brumfiel writes. “Among the most prominent is Dr. Pierre Kory, whose group, the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, has become a major force promoting ivermectin.” He told a Senate committee in December 2020 that “Ivermectin is effectively a ‘miracle drug’ against Covid-19.”
That is false. “Large clinical studies show that ivermectin does not lower rates of hospitalization. Meanwhile, some of the early, promising results have been retracted, including one study led by Kory himself. Today, everyone from the American Medical Association to the Food and Drug Administration tells doctors not to prescribe ivermectin to treat Covid,” Brumfiel writes.
Brumfiel reports that Kory did not answer NPR’s emailed questions in time for the deadline and that he’s “been everywhere on right-wing media promoting ivermectin.” Stephanie was among those influenced by Kory’s messaging. “In text messages, Stephanie’s friends were passing around an ivermectin-based treatment protocol that he helped develop,” Brumfiel writes.
Timothy Mackey, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies online pharmacies, told NPR that while it’s difficult to track how many people are seeking ivermectin out on the black market, “There’s probably thousands of people, tens of thousands of people that have looked for drugs, tried to buy something . . . maybe been defrauded and at worst maybe even harmed from these products,” he says.
NPR reports that Stephanie bought her drugs from a woman in Jacksonville, Fla., Elizabeth Starr Miller, whose LinkedIn profile said she was a “quantum healer” who also works as a loan officer. “In text messages shared with NPR by Stephanie’s family, Miller repeatedly told Stephanie to be wary of the hospital, “Brumfiel writes. Stephanie’s order, which also included some other unproven Covid drugs, totaled $390.
“She was just waiting for the pills and really did not want to do anything else,” Laurie told NPR.
Brumfiel reports that the drugs arrived in the mail on the same day she was rushed to the local hospital and when her daughter looked at them she found that they were not licensed for use in the U.S. and appeared to be made by Indian pharmaceutical companies, although a pharmaceutical researcher told NPR that he wasn’t even sure that the Indian company had made them.
When reached by phone, Brumfiel reports that Miller initially told NPR she had nothing to do with the drugs, but when pressed said that she and Stephanie had consulted a licensed doctor, who has since died of cancer and that she had no notes from the consultation. Her family says they are unaware of any such appointment taking place.